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THE FURTHER I TRAVEL
written and sung by Jim Low

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The Further I Travel

© Jim Low

camel

When I was in junior primary school, I had the misfortune of breaking my left arm during a school sports afternoon. While my arm was mending I was not allowed to be involved in too much physical activity. During this time my teacher, knowing I liked drawing and painting, set me to work creating large pictures of Australian exploring achievements. With the help of school film strips, these pictures soon evolved into a colourful giant frieze which moved steadily around the classroom walls. Charles Sturt could be seen sailing down the Murray River, Gregory Blaxland and his party gazed out over land west of the Blue Mountains and Burke and Wills battled the interior's endless horizon. More exploits were churned out in visual form, much to my teacher's approval.

I believe that this period of artistic endeavour during my convalescence whetted my interest in Australia and its history.

In 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke led a party of sixteen men from Melbourne on an expedition, using camels, to cross Australia from south to north. After establishing a base camp at Cooper's Creek, Burke, William Wills, who was then second in command, and two companions, John King and Charles Gray, continued north through western Queensland. The Gulf of Carpentaria was finally reached in February 1861.

Burke

On the return journey, Gray died of dysentery and the remaining three explorers arrived back at Cooper's Creek on the very day the base camp had been abandoned. Burke and Wills survived in the area for another two months before dying. John King was later found alive by a search party, having been assisted by Aboriginals.

The tragic circumstances relating to the expedition of Burke and Wills touched me as a youngster. At school, I can't really remember any criticism ever being levelled at any of our country's explorers. Rather, they held the status of heroes. I know now that heroes can also have character deficiencies. Impulsive and irrational behaviour, an apparent unwillingness to learn from another environment and its indigenous people - these and more continue to raise serious questions about Burke's suitability as a leader. Still, there's something about this episode in Australian exploration that affords respect and fascination for this man.

For a number of years I had wanted to write a song about the exploits of Burke and Wills. I just assumed that it would take the narrative form and be written in the third person.
It was therefore a surprise to me when I did eventually come up with a song, that it took the first person narrative and was from Burke's own perspective. After reading Tim Bonyhady's book Burke and Wills - From Melbourne to Myth and learning more about Burke's relationship with Julia Mathews, I knew the slant my song would take.

Julia

Two years before the fateful journey, Burke fell in love with a fifteen year old actress named Julia Mathews. She was performing at Beechworth where Burke was a senior inspector of police. He attended all her performances over a three week period, followed her around the countryside and unsuccessfully proposed marriage to her. The decline of his proposal is really not that surprising considering their age difference (Burke was 37), their religious difference (Julia was Catholic), the different social standing of their respective professions, and the fact that Julia was travelling with her mother.

Before leaving on his expedition for the Gulf, Burke gave Julia a gold bracelet which featured a miniature photograph of himself. He also made a will which left all his possessions to her.

In a final letter to his sister Hessie, written on the expedition when nearing death, Burke changed this will. Saying he had “only a slight acquaintance” with Miss Mathews, he now left everything to his sister and asked her “to make over any money derived from my Salary or the sale of my things in Melbourne to Miss Julia Mathews.”

At the time of the announcement of Burke's death, the actress was performing in Melbourne at the Royal Princess Theatre. She did not cancel any performances and later informed the public that on November 3, while walking in Melbourne's Botanical Gardens. she lost the bracelet which Burke had given to her the previous year.