Sunday, February 10, 2013

Review of "The Explorers" by Tim Flannery

For those who are unfamiliar with Australian geography, take a look at any topographical map of the continent.  Roughly 70% is covered in dry land, most of which is arid desert seeing little to no rain throughout the year.  Inhospitable to say the least, this knowledge was known only to the Aborigines when Europeans began settling the land more than 300 years ago.  White man’s ambitions being what they are, the desert was seen as something to be conquered and an obstacle to be "discovered" as more and more foreigners began settling the land.  In following, numerous parties set out with differing goals in mind, some to find mythical places, others to be the first to cross continent, or be the first to plant a flag at the center.  Not all the expeditions successful, Tim Flannery’s The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier collects the “best of” of journal entries from those who braved the endless desert—only the words living on to tell of the experience for some.

Most if not all of the explorers and expeditions Flannery includes will be known to Australians.  They include the Sturt expedition (he brought a boat thinking to find a huge lake in the center), Ernest Giles (who wisely turned around after getting lost a few times), and the famous Burkes and Wills’ (from which only the journals survived of the expedition leaders).  Each having its own angle on Australia’s interior, the landscape and its harsh realities come to life as each viewpoint adds itself to the previous.  Hot, dry, and endless are only the beginning.

Flannery wisely includes a short biography or summary of each of the explorers or expeditions at the start of each section.  Great context, the perspective of the explorer is then presented through their journal entries--its value as lore or uniqueness as an overland journey revealing itself in the process.  Most often ambition (and occasionally, egoism) the driving factors, the hopes and dreams of many are shattered by the land.  That this is most often by foolish oversight or lack of preparation makes for satisfying reading.  There are some, however, who satisfy their goals, making the collection a mix of tragedy and success.

In the end, The Explorers is the best introduction to the European exploration of Australian hinterlands on the market.  It presents major and minor expeditions which took place in the country’s fledgling years as a yet European society, and offers a brilliant look at the geography of the country’s interior with emphasis on what made each unique.  Humorous, heroic, brave and foolish, the book is a spring board that will push readers to head out and find more complete versions of the explorers’ journals, or information on the exploration of Australia, in general.  For someone interested in modern Australian history, it’s an interesting read.  For anyone interested in man vs. the most extreme of elements, it’s a must.

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