40th anniversary of Entebbe raid

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the Entebbe rescue mission, the Israeli mission to free hostages at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport. It remains possibly the most recent occasion when Israel held the sympathy of the entire world. Originally called Operation Thunderbolt, the world remembers it as Operation Entebbe while the Israeli army calls it Operation Yonatan to commemorate the raid leader and the only Israeli soldier to die in the action. He was Colonel Yonatan Nehenyatu, the brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nehenyatu.

The cause of Operation Entebbe was the hijack of a French aeroplane one week earlier. On 27 June 1976, Air France Flight 139 to Paris was hijacked shortly after take-off from the notoriously lax security Athens airport. Athens was a stopover; the flight had originated in Tel-Aviv. On board were 12 crew and 248 passengers. Ten minutes out of Athens, a group of three men and a woman took control of the plane. They were two male PLO operatives and two members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang. They ordered the pilots to immediate divert the plane to Benghazi in Libya. They spent seven hours on the ground at Benghazi where they refuelled and released a female hostage. The women had convinced the hijackers and a hastily summoned Libyan doctor that she was pregnant. The woman, who was in fact on her way to her mother’s funeral in Manchester, spent an anxious few hours in the airport terminal, and was then put on a plane to England.

The hijacked flight left Libya in the early hours of 28 June and flew to Uganda. Ugandan leader Idi Amin had strong ties with the PLO and he had expelled the Israelis from Uganda after they refused to sell him Phantom jets. The Israeli embassy in Kampala was then offered to the PLO as headquarters. Amin invited the hijackers of Flight 139 to come to Uganda. At Entebbe airport, the hijackers were joined by three newcomers under the command of Wilfried Böse. Böse was well known in German far-left intellectual circles and he was deeply anti-Semitic. Once Böse took over the operation, they began to make demands. They began by releasing all the non-Jewish hostages. They demanded the release of 40 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and 13 other detainees held in Kenya, France, Switzerland, and Germany, or they said, they would begin killing the remaining hostages on 1 July.

Under an armed guard of Ugandan soldiers, the passengers were transferred to the transit hall of Entebbe Airport’s old terminal. Amin paid a visit to the terminal and made a speech in support of the liberation of Palestine. Another Air France airliner was flown in to retrieve the crew and non-Jewish passengers. But Flight 139’s Captain Michel Bacos told the hijackers that the passengers were his responsibility, and that he would not leave any of them behind.

Bacos’ entire crew, down to the most junior flight attendant, followed suit. A French nun also refused to leave, and insisted one of the remaining hostages take her place, but Ugandan soldiers forced her at gunpoint to join the 46 other non-Jewish passengers in the waiting Air France plane. The crew remained and disgracefully, Bacos would be reprimanded for his actions by his Air France superiors after the rescue mission. The freed passengers were questioned on arrival home by Mossad operatives who learned that Ugandan soldiers were co-operating with the hijackers. They also got clues to the layout of the Terminal building. A day after releasing the first batch of passengers, the hostage-takers freed 101 more passengers leaving only the crew and the Jewish passengers in Uganda.

On the 1 July deadline, the government of Israel offered to negotiate with the hijackers to extend the deadline to 4 July. Israeli General Chaim Bar-Lev, a close personal friend of Amin, telephoned him on a number of occasions to negotiate but achieved nothing. On 3 July, the Israeli cabinet approved Operation Entebbe under the command of Brigadier General Dan Shomron. Planning for the raid took several days. The terminal had been built by an Israeli construction company (common in Africa at the time). The company gave the building blueprints to the Army and they built a partial replica of the transit hall. The builders were kept under supervision during this phase so Israel would not lose the advantage of surprise.

The plan called for the troops to fly into Entebbe airport and drive to the Old Terminal in a black Mercedes with Land Rover escorts. This would fool the Ugandan guards into believing Idi Amin was paying a visit. Backup aeroplanes with medical facilities were sent to Kenya, an implacable enemy of Amin happy to assist the rescue. The aircrafts took off from Israel on the 4000km journey in separate directions so as not to arouse suspicion, and flew at less than 30 metres over the Red Sea to avoid Egyptian and Saudi radar. At 11pm, they touched down at Entebbe and the Mercedes and Land Rovers – packed with elite Israeli commandos in Ugandan army uniforms – rolled out.

The raid lasted three minutes. An initial confrontation occurred near the control tower, when two Ugandan sentries who stopped the convoy were shot dead. With the element of surprise gone, the troops raced on foot to the Old Terminal where at some point Netanyahu was fatally wounded. In the ensuing firefight, all seven hijackers were killed as well as 24 Ugandan soldiers. Three hostages were also killed in the crossfire. The 75-year-old hostage Dora Bloch missed out on the rescue because she had earlier been released to hospital in Kampala due to a choking fit. On the day after the raid, she was murdered on Amin’s orders.

The survivors were herded onto the transport planes and took off at 11.52pm to Nairobi. An infantry team sprayed machinegun fire at seven Ugandan MIG fighters to ensure they would not take off in pursuit. The last of the fighters left Entebbe at 12.40am. The mission returned to an air force base on Israeli soil on 4 July with 98 freed hostages. They were fed and given medical checks before flying on to Tel-Aviv. There the planes released its celebrated cargo into the outstretched arms of their relatives and friends and an appreciative crowd of thousands of wellwishers.

Uganda later convened a session of the United Nations Security Council to seek official condemnation of the Israeli raid as a violation of Ugandan sovereignty. Many countries agreed with the Ugandan resolution. However, the Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter.

On the 40th anniversary Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to the country where his brother died becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Uganda since the crisis and indeed the first to visit Africa in at least 30 years. Netenyahu was keen to stress Israeli-Ugandan relations had moved on. “This is a deeply moving day for me,” he said. “Forty years ago they landed in the dead of night in a country led by a brutal dictator who gave refuge to terrorists. Today we landed in broad daylight in a friendly country led by a president who fights terrorists.” However it remains a moot point whether the label of terrorist could also be applied to Netenyahu over his treatment of Gaza and the West Bank, and his host Yoweri Museveni who has ruthlessly crushed opposition in his 30 years as Ugandan president.


A trip to Normanton and Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria

Last week I hitched a lift with the local state MP on a charter plane up to the Gulf of Carpentaria. He was up there to check out a couple of schools in Normanton and farewell a ship in Karumba exporting live cattle to Malaysia.  Not having been that far north in the Gulf, I eagerly took up the offer.


We took off from Mount Isa heading north past Glencore’s massive George Fisher zinc mine about 20km out of town.


The familiar rolling hills of the Selwyn Ranges seem to go on forever.


The next notable landmark from the air is Lake Julius dam. The dam wall is located just below the junction of the Leichhardt River and Paroo Creek 70km north-east of Mount Isa.kur9.JPG

This mine to the north of Julius Dam is Mount Margaret copper mine which closed in 2014.


The further north we got, the flatter the landscape became. This is Gulf cattle country, home to vast stations the size of European countries populated with many thousand cattle, but just a handful of people.


As we descend into Normanton, the windy path of the Norman River comes clearly into view. Rising near Croydon it meanders north-west past Normanton to empty into the Gulf at Karumba.kur14.JPG


The township of Normanton has a population of around 1500 people, with well over a third Indigenous.kur12.JPG

The colourful Purple Pub is one of Normanton’s three watering holes.


But Normanton’s most popular tourist attraction is probably Krys the Crocodile. The life-sized status is named for Polish immigration Krystina Pawlowski. In July 1957, Krys killed Australia’s biggest known crocodile with a single shot on the banks of the Norman River near the Gulf of Carpentaria town of Normanton. The saltwater crocodile was enormous, measuring 8.63m, over twice as big as the one that normally ply the waters around these parts.


After admiring Krys’s girth (the croc I mean, not the human), it was back on the plane for the short hop to Karumba, 70km away. The tidal salt flats seem to stretch on forever.


The Port of Karumba comes into view near the mouth of the Norman River, with the cattle boat visible in the photo. The large white building is the the port facility for MMG’s Century Mine, which closed down last year. Its closure brought an end to dredging which threatened to end the viability of the port. After much prompting, the state government has taken up dredging and port traffic is flowing again.


Karumba is divided into two halfs. As well as the Port, there is Karumba Point right on the mouth with more of a residential and tourist focus. kur18.JPG

This is the only place on the entire Savannah Way drive from Cairns to Darwin that is right on the Gulf. The view from the Kuramba Point Tavern is well worth the drive alone. There was time for one quick beer before we set off on the hour long flight back to Mount Isa.kur20.JPG




Marie Colvin family files lawsuit against Syrian government

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Marie Colvin in Homs (Photo: Paul Conroy)

The family of American journalist Marie Colvin has filed a lawsuit saying the Syrian government deliberately targeted her in the Homs bombing which killed her four years ago. Her sister Cathleen Colvin, whose children are Marie’s heirs, filed the suit through the non-profit Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA) saying Syria had rejected a “reasonable opportunity” to arbitrate the claim. The CJA says their lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for  crimes.

Marie Colvin, 56, died on February 22, 2012 along with award-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik when their building was hit with, according to official Syrian sources, an “improvised explosive device filled with nails”. The Syrian government claimed the bomb was planted by “terrorists” but survivors of the attack say the building was deliberately targeted by the Syrian Army. The lawsuit called Colvin one of the great war correspondents of her generation and accuses “Syrian government agents” of being responsible for her death. She had worked for the Sunday Times for 25 years covering war zones including Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Iraq-Iran, East Timor and Sri Lanka where she lost an eye in a grenade attack.

In 2012 Colvin was reporting on the Syrian revolution which had started the year before. The Syrian Army launched a massive military operation in Homs, the country’s third largest city laying siege to rebel-held suburbs. Despite a media blackout, Syrian citizen journalists used YouTube, Skype and Facebook to get the truth out to the world. Local poet and activist Khaled Abu Salah and others set up a media centre at a secret location on the ground floor of a three-storey house. There they produced video blogs and hosted foreign journalists including Colvin. The Assad regime accused Salah and the Media Centre of being “terrorist collaborators”. In early February 2012 the army had begun a scorched earth campaign against the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, where the studio was located, with civilians subject to artillery and sniper fire.

The world was starting to take note. Colvin and other journalists gathered at Beirut Airport where they were smuggled into Syria. Colvin had seen the Media Centre’s video footage and was determined to cover the siege. She travelled with British photographer Paul Conroy and Syrian translator Wael al-Omar. They decided against an official Syrian visa after French journalist Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs in January, with other journalists believing he had been led into an ambush. Colvin, Conroy and al-Haems made it to Homs using back roads and a 3km-long tunnel.

Colvin was there for two days as the neighbourhood took heavy shelling and then returned to the border where she filed her report for the Sunday Times. A day later (February 20) they decided to return to Homs where they trapped by artillery fire. Despite her vast wartime experience, she said the situation inside Homs was the worst she had experienced. Things were about to get worse still. On February 21 Colvin made an audio satellite broadcast from the Media Centre which was picked up by CNN, BBC and Channel 4.  “There are rockets, shells, tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city,” Colvin said. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” They bunked in the back room of the house with French and Spanish journalists. The regime knew Colvin and others were coming from Lebanon and tracked their movements to the media centre. The lawsuit said a decision to attack the centre with artillery fire was taken at the highest level by the war cabinet which included Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad and was carried out by the military with help from a secret government death squad known as Shabiha (derived from the Arabic word for ghosts).

That night the Syrian Army at Homs was tipped off about the precise location of the media centre and the information was relayed back to Damascus. The information matched the location of Colvin’s intercepted broadcast signal and officials spent the rest of the night trying to work out exactly where the journalists were in the compound. The following morning Colvin was preparing to leave through the tunnels when the shriek of a rocket shook the house. Using a method called “bracketing” they launched rockets on either side of the compound, drawing closer with each round. Panicking people inside the centre decided to evacuate. As Colvin and Ochlik rushed to the front foyer a rocket slammed into the ground directly outside, killing them both. Conroy, al-Omar and French journalist Edith Bouvier were severely injured by the shrapnel and debris.

As survivors left the building they were spotted by aerial surveillance. The artillery switched target from the building to the nearby streets aimed at survivors and emergency responders. There were no armed rebels anywhere in the vicinity. After the attack Syrian intelligence gathered at Army offices where they were congratulated on the news Colvin and Ochlik were dead. The others escaped through the tunnel, including Edith Bouvier with a broken leg. Conroy called the situation in Homs “systematic slaughter”. Few believed the Syrian story of terrorists and Colvin’s family began the painstaking search for evidence. It eventually led to this week’s suit which states categorically “with premeditation, Syrian officials deliberately killed Marie Colvin by launching a targeted rocket attack”. Whether anyone will ever be brought to justice in a war that has killed almost half a million others, remains a moot point.

Pauline Hanson is back – and so is Hansonmania

edc84-hansonMuch of the talk of the federal election has been about the impact of Pauline Hanson and her return to federal parliament after a gap of 18 years.

This time she will be occupying the purple benches of the Senate rather than the Green ones of the House of Reps but she will likely bring back the same unreconstructed firebrand politics to the chamber, and to the nation, with the same undoubted national coverage.

As always her media coverage exceeds her influence, and one commentator acidly described her as a “wholly owned subsidiary of Channel Seven” (and that was not the worst he called her). The ambiguous relationship she has with media was summed up in an extraordinary outburst today where she complained of bias against her and said she would bypass traditional newspapers and TV networks in favour of citizen journalism. Citizen journalism may be the only kind left in the coming years but if paid media does disappear, Hanson’s cause too will die for lack of publicity.

Some commentators like Tim Soutphommasane say that while the politics of Hansonism haven’t changed in two decades, Australian society has moved on. Yet she will be an important voice in the next parliament and as such, worthy of attention.

I am no fan of Hanson’s political views however when I was working for the Gatton Star newspaper in 2015 I had the opportunity to cover in close detail her campaign to win the state seat of Lockyer.

I ended up with similar feelings and a similar respect for Hanson that journalist and author Margo Kingston had for her after she covered her (Pauline’s) 1998 campaign to win the seat of Blair, a story Kingston recounted in her book “Off the Rails”. I could see, as Kingston could, that Hanson had a great way with people and formed quick bonds with everyone she met on the street. Hanson could always draw on a great inner strength and her sensational jailing and subsequent quashing of her electoral fraud offence in 2003 has only made her stronger.

The left wing of Australian politics has always been quick to denounce Hanson for her extremist views, but the reality is that much of her 1996 platform (such as the tightening of the borders, the removal of ATSIC, and the reduction of foreign aid) became mainstream. But even this week when Kingston warns we should listen to her not lampoon her, the reaction from the left has mostly been lampooning of Margo and unbridled rage against Pauline.

Hanson seems to feed off the rage of the left as well as having an indefatigable appetite for elections, having run in nine of them, though until last week none were successful since that shock 1996 breakthrough.

Hanson narrowly lost the 1998 election that Kingston covered, and lost even more narrowly the 2015 election in Lockyer that I covered (another 50 votes would have put her in state parliament) but I had to admire her persistence, energy and ambitious nature.

I remember getting an angry late night call from her during the campaign after I suggested in an editorial her ultimate aim was to become prime minister.

“That’s not true, I never said that,” she said to me. “I know,” I responded, “that was just my opinion and it’s an opinion I haven’t changed despite what you just said.”

Of course being outside the major parties, Hanson will never become prime minister. But it is clear she can tap into deep wells of resentment and command a lot of votes. Her views on “Islamageddon” and climate change are nonsense (the latter is the influence of conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts whom I had the dubious pleasure of listening to during a forum in Gatton organised by Hanson) but the major parties should take her seriously nonetheless. She represents a strong core of disenfranchised and disillusioned people who believe she is the only one speaking for them. I congratulate her on her election to parliament and hope she finds the wisdom to properly represent the people that voted her in.

Coalition likely to win the election with or without a majority

Bill Shorten speaks on TV tonight.
Bill Shorten speaks on TV tonight.

As we pass midnight on election day in Australia, no one is calling the election and Labor’s Bill Shorten has rightfully called it a good day for Labor. Yet he will not become the new prime minister, that honour for now will remain with Malcolm Turnbull.

At the moment the ABC reckons the LNP has 73 seats, two short of an overall majority in the 149-seat house. Labor has 66, others have five and there are six in doubt.

The Coalition led in most of those doubtful seats last time I looked and traditionally are stronger in postal votes. They can also count on the support of at least one of the independents in Bob Katter.

Katter was comfortably re-elected in the seat I live in, Kennedy, which covers a vast swathe of North and North-West Queensland. Katter almost lost the seat to the LNP’s Noeline Ikin in 2013 but Ikin had to withdraw in January due to illness and her replacement, the 25-year-old Jonathan Pavetto did not have the name recognition to defeat his 72-year-old opponent. In the last hung parliament in 2010, Katter went with the Coalition and given his stated distaste for Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek (though he has a lot of respect for Anthony Albanese), he should vote for the Coalition again this time.

As for the others, Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie should support Labor while Cathy McGowan and NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie are likely to vote tactically but unlikely to deny the Coalition the chance to form government.

This result is a good thing. I’ve often editorialised to say that despite what the parties say minority government is a good thing and not a recipe for chaos. It forces parties to negotiate to get their agenda through. And that’s without even having seen what the Senate is about to throw up, but with only half a quota needed, that won’t be a Coalition majority either. Nick Xenophon has increased his power. Pauline Hanson too has done well and not just in Queensland, but even she is not the ogre she is painted out to be and will be just one player in a big pond.

It has been a somewhat disappointing election for the Greens and their impressive leader Richard Di Natale. They increased their vote by 1.25% but they failed to break through for a second House of Reps seat and are likely to lose a seat or two in the Senate. This is despite their support for the rule changes in the Senate election which most people expected would favour them.

But any disappointment they may feel will be dwarfed by the Coalition which has lost at least 12 seats to Labor (while picking back up Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax). Prime Minister Turnbull hasn’t spoken yet but this result is a bad personal blow for him and continues his poor form leading campaigns at polls, dating back to the republic referendum in the 1990s. The pressure will be on him to resign but surely they would have been soundly beaten had Tony Abbott remained at the helm. Turnbull will have to remind his own hardheads of that fact and he will have to negotiate with the other parties’ hardheads to get his agenda through. However it is not entirely clear what that agenda is, even after a ludicrously long eight week campaign. Shorten said it was time for the parliament to get back to work, and he is right. But a big question remains after today. How will it work?

The story of New Geneva Barracks

Passage East ferry.

Despite their close geographical proximity, the south eastern Irish counties of Wexford and Waterford have not always shared a close heritage. The two are separated by the broad expanse of Waterford Harbour and there are no bridges between them. Only in the 1980s were the two linked up with the opening of the car ferry between Passage East in Waterford and Ballyhack in Wexford. But when Wexford rose in rebellion against the English in 1798, the county across the harbour remained quiet. Waterford’s only link to the rebellion is a building just outside Passage with the unusual name of New Geneva Barracks.

In the late 18th century, Ireland was in a rare period of prosperity as Britain temporarily relaxed customs duties. In 1783, the new Irish parliament in Dublin was determined to fund a colony from Geneva who wanted to settle in Ireland. They were Swiss Protestants who wanted to leave their homeland after an unsuccessful rebellion against their Catholic French rulers. The Irish parliament voted £50,000 to buy land and build a town to house the immigrants. The sum was increased by £6,000 with land set out in the barony of Gaultier (east Waterford county) in 1653 for the support of Duncannon Fort (across the river in Co Wexford). These tenanted lands near Passage East were owned by the Alcock family, one of whom was MP for Waterford city. The government bought out the land from the Alcocks for £12,400 and compensated the tenants. They then began building with the intention of accommodating 1000 Genevans. The public reason for bringing them over was to build a body of skilled merchants to give impetus to trade and commerce in Waterford city and the nation as a whole.

But there were ulterior motives. Authorities secretly hoped the Protestant ethos might infect the local Catholic population. Earl Temple, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to Chief Secretary Grenville, where he noted putting the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. This also meant setting up an educational establishment. The government wanted to establish a Genevan College but needed to keep it secret from the governors of Trinity College who had a monopoly on education.

But the Trinity governors never had to worry as the mission failed before it began. An advance party of Genevans arrived in Waterford determined to set up a silk industry. Work on the New Geneva site proceeded but concession talks between the Irish government and Genevan leaders broke down over Swiss demands the government felt were unreasonable. The whole arrangement fell through, the Genevans returned home and the buildings were left derelict.

With the threat of an uprising in 1798, the Government took possession of New Geneva, raised the compound walls and provided accommodation for 1500 soldiers. When fighting broke out in Wexford, Waterford remained peaceful. However the Government was uneasy if the United Irishmen triumphed in New Ross, Waterford would have risen. The soldiers at New Geneva were suspicious and cruel towards locals. More than a century afterwards, memories of the 1798 outrages lingered among the people and New Geneva was to them a symbol of tyranny and oppression.

In Watty Cox’s Irish magazine for February 1816 there was a vivid account of the “blanketing” of a woman at Geneva Barracks in 1798. A Mrs O’Neill travelled from Co Antrim to see her son imprisoned at the barracks. By bribing sentries she was permitted an interview but as soon as mother and son saluted each other, she was ordered into the presence of Colonel Scott and his wife. The couple subjected her to a rigorous examination and then handed her over to some highlanders for a “blanketing”. Blanketing was a common punishment whereby the soldiers would grab a blanket, strip the victim naked and hoist her in the air repeatedly. Mrs O’Neill suffered this indignity for more than 20 minutes. She implored soldiers to leave some clothes on but when Colonel Scott saw this departure from custom he was encouraged by his wife to cut off her clothes with his sword. Locals could see her naked body repeatedly rising and falling above the walls of the barracks. Afterwards the woman was taken to a neighbouring village where she died the next day. The fate of her son was not recorded.


Today all that remains of Geneva Barracks  is a dilapidated farmhouse and the remains of watch towers erected in 1798. In the 19th century the lands passed to Lord Waterford who sold them to a local merchant. This man named Galwey dismantled the barracks and moved the stonework to augment his premises in Dungarvan. A marker now commemorates the Geneva site with a prisoner’s description of the barracks as “the filthiest, most damp and loathsome prison, devoid of any comfort”. It is also remembered in James McBurney’s The Croppy Boy (which featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses) the last verse of which reads:
At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy”.

(Originally published at the old Woolly Days site in 2008).

The Dig Tree: the story of Burke and Wills

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The Dig Tree at Depot 65: Photo: Derek Barry

I have been aware of the infamous Burke and Wills expedition for as long as I can remember. Yet I have always resisted the story until I realised I was doing that primarily for silly nationalistic reasons: the leader of the failed expedition, Robert O’Hara Burke was a vainglorious fool from Ireland. I knew his superior attitudes caused him and his men to starve when native people around him thrived in that harsh environment. It was a type of Irish racism I didn’t want to acknowledge.

But my indifference to the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-1861 was slowly worn away as it intersected with another study in 19th century Australian exploring failure: the disappearance of Ludwig Leichhardt a decade earlier, and in the same part of the world. I was also lucky enough to visit the Dig Tree in 2011. I lapped up the great narrative of Burke and Wills and its bad luck and “what if” moments. The final nail in the coffin of my uncaring was my move to Mount Isa this year. I cover much of the country the expedition charted, a thousand kilometres from Birdsville in the centre to Karumba on the Gulf coast. I am reminded of Burke and Wills whenever I drive between Isa and Cloncurry with a monument to them at Corella Creek. So I revisited the story via Sarah Murgatroyd’s excellent book The Dig Tree. The book too was a tragedy as the young BBC reporter was diagnosed with cancer while she researched it. She died in 2002 three weeks after the book was published, aged just 34.

Her story begins at a time when as now European Australians hugged the coast. The interior was a vast unknown. Explorers like Eyre on the Nullarbor in 1841 and Leichhardt in north Queensland in 1844-45 never went far inland. Leichhardt may later have drifted inwards but his disappearance merely added to the mystery of the “dead heart” of this inhospitable continent. Charles Sturt ventured into the Simpson Desert until defeated by vast gibber plains, giving his name to Sturt’s Stony Desert.  Yet as the 1850s progressed, the confident new gold-rich colony of Victoria decided to flex its muscles and launch a search for Leichhardt. As one newspaper said, that the interior of the continent should remain a mystery was a reproach “to the Australian communities in general but especially to Victoria”.

There was a second practical reason for opening up the centre. The telegraph was turning the world into a global village but Australia remained isolated. The race was on to see which southern city would be the terminus for a cable to the northern shoreline and on to south-east Asia. South Australia had the advantage of being the first port of call of ships and also the most direct line to the north but Victoria was leading the challenge from the other colonies.

The Victorian Exploration Committee decided to solve the problem of crossing the continent with camels and imported two dozen Indian camels from horse trader George Landells. But the expedition spluttered due to lack of funds, and South Australia got the jump, thanks to dour Scotsman, John McDouall Stuart. Stuart travelled to Cooper Creek with his near-namesake Sturt in 1844, giving him a taste for inland exploration. From 1845 to 1858 Stuart tried farming and ended up as a surveyor with the knack of finding good pastures in rough country.

He was dispatched to disprove the theory there was salt lakes to the north that would halt South Australia’s expansion. Travelling light, he discovered the area around Coober Pedy until low food supplies forced him back via new country on the Nullarbor Plain.  A year later Stuart found a chain of springs north of Lake Eyre with a ready supply of fresh water, which led him on to the interior supported by a grateful colony. When South Australia offered a prize for the first person to cross the continent, it re-awoke Victorian ambitions and sparked a search to find an expedition leader. The response was poor and the committee bickered over candidates. Stuart set off again in March 1860, determined to collect the South Australian prize.

Victoria finally came up with a shortlist, and on it was Castlemaine police superintendent Robert O’Hara Burke recommended by a fellow officer.  The committee wasted three months trying to split the candidates, and the camels did not arrive from India until June. Finally they chose Burke, a man who had never been beyond the settled parts of Victoria and who was notorious for getting lost coming home from the pub.

Burke was born in Galway, a Protestant who served for the Catholic Austrian army where he cultivated a rakish image. But when he went AWOL, he faced court martial and was allowed to resign. He joined the Irish police until he moved to Melbourne in 1853 to help a Victorian police force desperate to impose order on lawless goldfields. Burke was an eccentric but popular with subordinates and took an active part in country life. He struck up a relationship with young actress Julia Matthews though her mother took her away to Melbourne. Burke had better luck cultivating important friendships including committee chair Sir William Stawell.

Burke was appointed leader of a ragtag expedition which gathered in Melbourne in July 1860. Burke chose men with the right connections rather than exploring experience. One of the few good decisions was to appoint 26-year-old Englishman William Wills as surveyor, and he was the only one who could navigate. Camel man Landells was second in command. Burke’s official instructions were to set up a depot at Cooper Creek, found by Sturt and then travel north to Leichhardt’s track. On the first day, August 20, the expedition with its exotic camels was like a circus leaving town and travelled just 11kms to Essendon. Three men were sacked before they left Royal Park leaving a team of 19, all without experience in the inland.

The expedition ran into heavy rain as it moved slowly through Victorian villages making camp gear sodden and heavy and grounding the wagons to a halt. It was also dangerous to ride the camels. By the time they got to the Terrick-Terrick Plains near the Murray River leadership tensions emerged. Burke left the camels and the running of the camp to Landells while he found the nearest pub or farmhouse instead of camping. Locals crowded the camp but also took advantage of it to overcharge for fodder and accommodation. At Swan Hill Burke realised the expedition would have to shed baggage. He decided to set up a new depot at Menindee on the Darling and the team was reduced to 14.

The bad weather continued as they entered NSW and Burke dismissed three more at Balranald. He decided on a short cut to Menindee through rugged Mallee country which exhausted his draught horses. Rather than save time, the forward party had to cross the country three times to rescue the wagons. From there on, the party would walk. Landells complained the camels were overloaded before they had reached the desert and was reproached for the rum he brought, supposedly as a camel pick-me-up.

Burke arrived in Menindee on October 14, Landells and the camels a day later. But when he arrived Burke ordered new second-in-command Wills to tell Landells he was fired.  Landells stormed off to Melbourne where he began to thrash Burke’s reputation. Menindee was the edge of European settlement in Baagandji country. It relied on a fortnight steamboat service to bring up supplies from Adelaide and send back wool. The expedition was heading 600km north to Cooper Creek in the hottest time of the year. Burke split his expedition taking seven men and three-quarters of the horses and camels with him. He was determined to make a dash for the Gulf and become the first man to cross the continent. The rest would wait in Menindee for further instructions.

Burke took a local bushman William Wright as a guide and third-in-command, and after 10 days reached Torowoto Swamp 250km north of Menindee. There Burke ordered Wright to return to Menindee and bring up the remainder of the camp while Burke continued to Cooper Creek. After 23 days they reached the creek system and summer rains gave it a rich green environment which reminded Wills fancifully of England. The creek was the home of the Yawarrawarrka and Yandruwandha peoples who lived in temporary wurley shelters moving as water and food supplies allowed. They feasted on birds, lizards, marsupials and snakes but relied on native plants such as mulga apples, native figs and an aquatic fern called nardoo which had seeds they ground into a paste and baked.

Burke’s party knew none of this but they found a magnificent waterhole where they camped without permission. Wills said the natives gesticulated when they approached a waterhole but the visitors made no effort to establish relations. Lack of local knowledge would eventually cost the party dearly. Exploratory sorties found no obvious way north and Wills almost died when camel took off when he was 130km from the Creek, leaving a long thirsty walk back. A plague of native rats gnawed the camp’s gear forcing Burke to move to Depot 65, where the Dig Tree now stands. They waited in vain for Wright to bring the camp up. The Menindee crew refused to accept Wright’s authority and letters to Melbourne went unanswered. An impatient Burke decided to dash to the Gulf. On December 16, 1860 he left William Brahe in charge of Depot 65 and decided to take six camels, one horse and three men (Wills, John King and Charles Gray) to the Gulf. Burke asked Brahe to stay three months at Cooper Creek but Wills pleaded with him to stay four months if possible. The expedition had now divided into three components.

The forward party followed the Creek north before hitting the gibber plains, travelling as far as possible before the heat of day. Then they would rest in the shadow of the camels before travelling on in the evening. Each night King would laboriously hack the letter B and the camp number into the bark of a tree. The former Irish soldier was Landell’s recruit and his calm sense of duty was rewarded with a spot in the forward party. He looked after the camels while ex-sailor Gray was the strongman who did the work around camp.

Travelling 25 kilometres a day, by December 23 they found the Coongie Lakes, home of the Yawarrawarrka people, who welcomed the bizarre strangers at their waterholes. It was good progress but the party was travelling too slowly for their rations. The terrain varied between claypans, boggy grounds and red dunes. The men sweated profusely but wouldn’t drink until rest points so felt bloated and sick, slowing them down further. They got lost in Channel Country until they found the Diamantina River near present day Birdsville which would lead them towards the Georgina system and the north coast. They passed parties of locals who pointed out the best billabongs. The worst of the desert was behind them.

With the country improving they reached modern-day Boulia when a camel rolled on Wills’ equipment which damaged the accuracy of his navigational calculations. There was still rough country to traverse. The Standish and Selwyn ranges in Kalkadoon country remain difficult terrain today with red walls of stone dividing gorges and sharp ridges. On January 27 they passed the site of Cloncurry (named for Burke’s cousin Lady Cloncurry) and headed north-west via the Corella river. Three days later was Drop Dead Day, the point of no return of their rations, but they continued north into Gulf country.

It was the “build-up” to the wet season of stifling humidity and spectacular storms on the horizon. In February a camel fell into a bog and had to be abandoned, with a redistribution of load to the other beasts. They followed the Flinders River to the north coast, but the shoreline remained invisible in thick trees.  The camels could not travel in the muddy estuary and Gray and King made camp at Camp 119 at the Bynoe and Flinders river junction while Burke and Wills tried to find the ocean.

The terrain was impassable mangrove swamps and Burke and Wills had neither the time nor energy to cross. They got 20km to the coast when they were forced to turn around without seeing the sea. Burke was satisfied the committee would accept they had completed the mission. As they turned south from Camp 119 the monsoon broke and it rained in torrents. They were continually stuck in mud. It had taken two months to get to the Gulf now the race was on to get back to Cooper Creek in another two – that was assuming Brahe acted on Wills’s suggestion not Burke’s.

Brahe’s men were coping with dwindling supplies, stultifying boredom and petty fights with pilfering locals who viewed the whites as unfriendly. Back in Menindee Wright finally got money and orders from Melbourne and set out north on January 26. Burke’s party continued to head south retracing steps to old camps. A food audit on February 12 found they had eaten three quarters of their provisions and they were forced to decrease their daily ration. They supplemented this with the native plant portulac which Wills said tasted like spinach and it saved them from scurvy. But the big man Gray was declining and weakened rapidly in March. After three months they were still 1100km from the Creek. On March 25, they discovered Gray was stealing supplies. Burke knocked him down and Gray was banned from looking after the supplies.

On March 30 they sacrificed the weakest camel and jerked the meat. A few days later Billy the horse gave way and they feasted on his stew.  At Coongie Lakes Gray deteriorated and after being strapped to a camel, the sailor died in the middle of the desert on April 17. They stopped a day to bury him and discarded all but the essentials. The men began to think of their homecoming as the telltale signs of the Cooper came into view. On April 21 – 127 days after leaving – they arrived at Depot 65 to find it empty but the ashes of a fire still warm. Wills saw a carving on a coolabah. “DIG UNDER 3 FT NW”. It had the date inscribed – also April 21. After waiting four months and one week, Brahe had enough and his party left that same day.

Burke collapsed in the dirt, the terrible reality confronting him. They had missed them by eight hours – about the same time as it took to bury Gray. They followed the dig instructions and found a note with Brahe’s intention to head back down the track and it said no one had arrived from Menindee. There was also flour, sugar, tea and dried meat.

Brahe said his men and horses were in good condition so there was little chance of Burke catching up with them. Wills and King wanted to follow Brahe to the Darling but Burke took the fateful decision to head south-west to Mt Hopeless, 250km away in South Australia. Gregory used that police outpost on his 1858 journey from the Cooper to Adelaide but Burke forgot Gregory had eight men, 40 horses and plenty of supplies. King reburied the trunk so to not arouse suspicions of the locals. He asked Burke if they should leave a new message on the tree. “No”, said Burke, “the word DIG serves our purpose as much as it served theirs.”

As Burke set off, Brahe’s party were not in as good shape as he wrote. Two of his men died at Bulloo while Aboriginal tribes taunted them. Wright’s party were no better off. The waterholes which sustained Burke had dried up and his men got stuck at what they called Rat Point while they searched in vain for water ahead. One of his party died and the rest were ill. Yet on April 29 Brahe and Wright finally hooked up by chance at Bulloo Lakes. The combined party had numerous invalids and as they were about to retreat Brahe suggested to Wright they should dash back to the Cooper to be sure. On May 8 they reached the Dig Tree and convincing themselves they would find nothing they found the cache as they left it and assumed the footprints were Aboriginal. They did not notice a broken bottle, a rake leaning against the tree or a piece of leather cut from the stockade door. Inwardly relieved, they stayed just 15 minutes and headed back south.

Meanwhile Burke, Wills and King were initially optimistic as they broke into their new supplies. But they suffered a bitter blow when a camel fell into quicksand and died. They only had one beast left and that was showing signs of fatigue. They got hopelessly lost in the rivulets of the Cooper and the barrier of high sand ridges. On the same day as Brahe and Wright’s return to the Dig Tree, Burke realised progress was impossible and they turned back to the Cooper. They had wasted two and a half weeks. They arrived back at the Dig Tree on May 30.

With supplies dwindling they finally tried to live ‘like the blacks’ but the Yandruwandha were not around to show them how. They discovered a large patch of nardoo seeds which they pounded into flour. But the Yandruwandha destroyed thiaminase (which blocks Vitamin B absorption) by washing and cooking the nardoo. By not doing this Burke’s party suffered beri-beri which induced lassitude and caused difficulty walking. Wills weakened fast and on June 21 acknowledged in his diary he would die unless relief came.

That relief was nowhere in sight. A fourth man died in the Brahe party on June 5 and they limped into Menindee on June 19. Wright took a steamer to Adelaide and Brahe had to tell the news to Melbourne. On June 26, 1861 Wills wrote his final letter to his father and then his final diary entry. Burke and King left him to his fate and he died within days. Burke was not much stronger and wrote his last will to his sister revoking an earlier will where he left his meagre estate to Julia Matthews. He praised King for staying with him and died that night. King set off in search of the Yandruwandha who were his only hope.

In Melbourne the committee was finally rousing into action. In one of their few good decisions they appointed experienced bushman Alfred Howitt to lead a rescue party. Howitt took three men and after three days they ran into Brahe on the Loddon River. Howitt was horrified at Brahe’s story and reported back to Melbourne. He was finally authorised to continue his journey while Queensland sent two rescue parties one by land and the other by sea. Both had the ulterior motive of claiming the new territory for Queensland.

King found the Yandruwandhu who gave him fish and a bed to sleep in. He still deteriorated as the days went by but clung to the hope of rescue. Howitt, meanwhile, quickly arrived in Menindee which had become an explorer’s town full of speculators and prospectors. He plundered from the remains of the Burke expedition and set off north arriving at Cooper Creek in just 25 days. He found camel tracks which led to Depot 65 but he too ignored the DIG sign. On September 15 one of Howitt’s men Edwin Welch was on a reconnaissance mission when he scattered a group of Aborigines, leaving one scarecrow-like figure behind. A man wearing the remains of a hat fell to the ground and raised his hands skywards. He told him his name was King, which was unknown to Welch who knew only of Burke and Wills. “King?” he inquired. Yes, King replied, “the last man of the Exploring Expedition,” and he broke down and wept.

Back at camp, Howitt pieced together the story of awful coincidences and missed opportunities. They gave Burke a proper burial and finally dug under the Dig Tree where they found the journals, letters and maps which would tell the story – and open up the country for white exploration. The news of King’s survival and Burke and Wills’ death became an international sensation. Victoria held a royal commission which was loaded in favour of the blundering Royal Society and cast Brahe, and especially Wright, as the scapegoats. Burke was a hero venerated in death, though many questioned his judgement as the full details emerged. He and Wills were given a state funeral, Gray was ignored. A scarred King would remain mostly silent for the rest of his life.

In South Australia, Stuart finally crossed the continent and Adelaide would get the telegraph line. Queensland extended its border to include Burke and Wills’s country from Birdsville to the coast. The eight deaths on the expedition were futile as the five rescue parties opened up all of eastern Australia for the benefit of South Australia, NSW and Queensland. Victoria was only left with a giant statue of Burke and Wills on Collins St and the beginning of a tradition of glorious but tragic failure, legends Ned Kelly and Gallipoli would later add to. But the biggest losers were the Aboriginal people who owned the land and kept King alive. Cattlemen arrived to dismantle traditional cultures and the indigenous people were moved away to missions and reserves. Only their ghosts now haunt the desert sands.