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Monday, September 21, 2009

Menindee, New South Wales

The little town of Menindee is 110 kms from Broken Hill and is surrounded by lakes fed by the Darling River. Grape Exchange Farming is Australia's largest producer of table grapes and has 300 hectares of vineyards in Menindee. They employ around 310 workers at harvest time.

Here in the outback you would never believe that vineyards or anything else could survive in brightly coloured red desert sand, but they do. The company brew up what they call a special 'tea' made out of compost which increases the bacterial and fungi content of the soil. Table grapes are much more labour intensive because everything is hand pruned and picked. They are suppliers to Coles and Woolworths.

The Darling River
Menindee is also famous for the doomed Burke and Wills expedition. At nearby Pamamaroo Creek there is a tree where they made camp. We had lunch at the hotel, now known as the Maiden's Menindee Hotel. Burke and Wills used the hotel as a staging point for their ill fated expedition.

The main weir

In 1860, policeman Robert Burke led an expedition to cross Australia from the south to the north. With the promise of fame and a handsome prize from the Government of South Australia for the first expedition to make it, they left Melbourne on 20th August 1860. There were 15 men, 27 camels, 23 horses, wagons, 2 years supply of food and many other necessities.

The expedition reached Menindee in about 8 weeks without incident. Burke heard that explorer Stuart was also going to attempt the arduous trek to the Gulf so he promptly left some of the men and supplies at Menindee and pushed on to Coopers Creek and established his base camp.

Pelicans waiting for fish to come over the weir
Burke looked upon Aboriginal people as his inferiors and couldn't bring himself to depend on them in any way so he refused gifts of food from the Yantruwanta people. Instead, Burke and his team tried to copy them, knowing they prepared nardoo cakes from the seeds of a local fern. What they didn't know was that nardoo seed is toxic to humans if it's not soaked in water first so the team slowly died from starvation and chronic loss of Vitamin B1 caused by untreated nardoo seed.

Storm clouds in the desert

Thanks to the diligent diary entries of Wills, we get an insight into the final days. Mentally and physically exhausted, this is his final entry.

Friday, 26 June, 1861
Clear cold night, slight breeze from the East day beautifully warm and pleasant. Mr Burke suffers greatly from the cold & is getting extremely weak he & King start tomorrow up the creek to look for the blacks. It is the only chance we have of being saved from starvation. I am weaker than ever although I have a good appetite and relish the nardu much but it seems to give us no nutriment & the birds here are so shy as not to be got at. Even if we got a good supply of fish I doubt whether we could do much work on them and the nardue alone, nothing now but the greatest good luck can now save any of us and as for myself, I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. my pulse are at forty-eight & very weak and my legs & arms are nearly skin and bone: I can only look out like Mr. Micawber “for something to turn up” but starvation on nardu is by no means very unpleasant but for the weakness one feels and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction certainly fat & sugar would be more to one’s taste, in fact those seem to me to be the great standby for one in this extraordinary continent, not that I mean to depreciate the farinaceous food, but the want of sugar & fat in all substances obtainable here is so great that they become almost valueless to us as articles of food, without the addition of something else.
W.J. Wills

Four days later King, having left Burke dead on the route, came back and found that Wills had also died. He joined the Yantruwanta people who looked after him until he was found a few months later by other explorers on the 15th September 1861.