A modern-day expedition with an environmental focus will mark the 150th anniversary of Burke and Wills’ fateful exploration of inland Australia.

Story By John Dunn

It's 150 years since Burke and Wills set out from Melbourne on their ill-fated bid to cross the continent, and the anniversary of that historic day – August 20 – will be marked by another expedition that will retrace the steps of the famous explorers.
From the stark stone cairn that stands symbolically alone in the vast, open spaces of the city’s Royal Park and marks the 1860 departure point, a self-funded private group with similar investigative intent, but with a different purpose, will set off.
It will comprise scientists, conservationists, environmentalists and historians, who will observe the country as Burke and Wills did in their journey to discover what settlement and agricultural opportunities there might be in the unknown of the continent’s vast inland. The aim of this party will be to record how that land has fared in the century and a half since, how it has been affected by the treatment by those who followed and cultivated and developed it in so many different ways.
The organiser and director of this ambitious and probably very timely expedition is historian, environmentalist and adventurer, Dr Jonathan King, who has an imposing track record in such historic re-enactments. He has spent a lifetime involved in a wide range of events regarding Australia’s past.
He is best known for his leadership of the 1988 Bicentennial Re-enactment of the founding voyage of the First Fleet from England, but he has also been connected with similar projects, such as the 1995 Waltzing Matilda and the Man from Snowy River centenary celebrations and events in 2002 marking Matthew Flinders’ circumnavigation of Australia. As well, he has written extensively on Australian history and produced many film documentaries.
Working with Jonathan is Steve Broomhall, a former stockman on Brunette Downs, who is operations manager, and actor Jack Thompson, expedition patron and whose favourite career role was playing Burke in the 1985 film about that first expedition and who is patron of the venture. They share a common love of the outback and a desire to retain its sustainability that goes back to the days when both were jackaroos and stockmen on sheep and cattle stations in the far west of New South Wales.
“This is an environmental expedition created to help those ailing areas along the Burke and Wills route that have been affected by problems caused by our over-exploitation of the land opened up by the explorers,” Jonathan says. “We plan to focus on a number of issues such as reforestation, stock levels, soil erosion, salination, rabbit plagues, foxes, feral goats and camels, cane toads, weed infestation and, of course, the impact of drought on water supplies.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #72

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2010