Burke and Wills died of malnutrition after months of searching in vain for a way out of the Cooper. Today the visage of Burke stares out from an 1898 carving on a tree at Cooper Creek

The Cooper, an oasis, is mystical in its atmosphere, moving in its beauty.

What is described by the term is not simply an intermittent stream of marginal dimension, but a natural phenomenon of immense size and extent, one of the miracles of nature, the breathing lungs and beating heart of the Australian outback. This miracle of the Cooper resembles the miracle of human life, moving in a vast rhythm of denial and fulfillment, of death and rebirth.

To understand the Cooper is to understand creative waxing and waning, to understand the cycle of life.

Rising in the Great Dividing Range of eastern Queensland, the Cooper's waters flow for more than eight hundred miles. Slowly, from a billion rivulets and gullies the waters ease their way westward and southward, giving birth to rivers named the Barcoo and Thomson.

Gently but irresistibly the sweet waters move westward towards the burning sand and rock wasteland of the interior. Their course is marked by interlaced channels, water holes and lagoons, lakes and swamps, and by deep, sandy beds of creeks shadowed and bordered by magnificent red gums and coolibah trees.

Tragically, Burke and Wills died of starvation in this world of plenty. Do not permit the creator within to share the same fate.


Overcoming the Starving Artist Syndrome

The Alexandrian museum was, and remains, a beacon for artists No one is certain what the great institution looked like, but the Greek geographer, Strabo, describes it as part of a richly decorated complex of buildings and gardens. The whole complex was a centre of learning and research, organized into faculties, whose scholars were paid by the royal purse. The library's broader mission was to rescue Greek literature from decay.

Sadly, few governments generously support such endeavor in our current society. Artists, writers and explorers for that matter, have long been out of favour in the status stakes. Gone are the days of the generous patrons who commissioned artists such as Vermeer and supported expeditions such as that of Burke and Wills. Media focus appears to be directed towards actors, actresses, sporting stars and reality television starlets. Magazines are filled with images of the beautiful people in white shoes, drinking cappuccinos, while dozens of artists live not knowing where their life is going, live wondering whether they can sustain their art. For too many art and creativity are part time pursuits.

However, the good news is that the artist need not be deterred by the direction of the herd and the failure of society to support their art. Unlikely it may seem, but the artist can learn from disastrous blunders made by early Australian explorers who perished in the interior, oblivious to the abundance that surrounded them. By following a few simple rules they can fulfill their artistic need and ward off starvation.

Avoid Burke and Wills Blunders

Explorers of Burke and Wills ilk were hailed as heroes and given rich incentives to head off into the boiler to reach the top of Australia. Their failure to survive and reap the rewards was mainly due to a series of mad blunders.

Australian historian Alan Moorehead cites references to Burke in his 1963 book Cooper's Creek as a "wild eccentric dare-devil" who was in "no sense a bushman". It appears almost certain that Burke's arrogance and his almost complete lack of bushcraft, condemned the campaign to agonising failure.

Burke and Wills ventured into was an immense, uncharted continent with not enough knowledge. The explorers died of starvation and illness amid amazing abundance. By the end of June 1861, both Burke and Wills were dead. King had been taken in by Aboriginal people, who would save him.

Despite the fact that the inland had been the home of native Australians for about 60,000 years that Burke never tried to understand the indigenous people and Wills, who considered them friends, still never quite understood how they could save him. Only King, who actively sought their help, fathered a child with one of them and allowed them to grant him life.

There are many notes on the use of nardoo as food by Aborigines in the journals of the early explorers of Australia. But perhaps the most graphic and famous are those recorded by Wills towards the end of the fatal Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition of 1860.

When they had no food left they were fed nardoo by the Aborigines and collected their own to try to overcome starvation. They made use of this food but did not prepare it properly, developed beri-beri and died from the combined effects of this disease and starvation.

At Cooper Creek on June 3, 1861 Wills wrote... "The fish being disposed of, next came a supply of nardoo cake and water, until I was so full as to be unable to eat more; when Pitchery, allowing me a short time to recover myself, fetched a large bowl of the raw nardoo flour, mixed to a thin paste, a most insinuating article, and in that they appear to esteem a great delicacy...."

This fish and nardoo was given to them by the Aborigines. Wills actually describes here how the Aborigines prepared the flour in a thin paste but unfortunately did not follow the recipe. The following extracts are from the journal of W.J. Wills, found after his death on Cooper Creek. The comments in this journal graphically describe the symptoms in the final few days of a man dying from beri-beri

On Wednesday, June 12, 1861 he wrote.... "King out collecting nardoo. Mr Bourke and I at home, pounding and cleaning. I still feel myself, if anything, weaker in the legs, although the nardoo appears to be more thoroughly digested."

June 14.... "I feel weaker than ever, and both Mr. B. and King are beginning to feel very unsteady in the legs."

June 15.... "I have determined to chew tobacco and eat less nardoo, in hopes that it may induce some change in the system. I have never yet recovered from constipation, the effect of which is exceedingly painful."

June 20...."Finding the sun come out pretty warm towards noon, I took a spongeing all over, but it seemed to do little good beyond the cleaning effects, for my weakness is so great that I could not do it with proper expedition. I cannot understand this nardoo at all; it certainly will not agree with me in any form. We are now reduced to it alone, and we manage to get four to five pounds per day between us."

June 23.... "All hands at home. I am so weak as to be incapable of crawling out of the Mia Mia."

June 28, the last entry in his journal.... "Nothing now but the greatest good luck can save any of us; and as for myself, I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. My pulse is at forty-eight, and very weak, and my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone. I can only look out, like Mr. Micawber, 6 for something to turn up. Starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as the appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satis faction. Certainly fat and sugar would be more to one's taste; in fact, those seem to me to be the great stand-by for one in this extraordinary continent; not that I mean to depreciate the farinaceous food, but the want of sugar and 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."

He died within the next four days and Bourke died on June 26/7. In spite of starvation the fern was primarily the killer!

Burke was under instructions to divide the party, leaving behind the scientists and most of the men well into the journey, and then to strike out for the gulf with a small group. Science would be forgotten conveniently when he returned triumphant, and Victoria would be free to colonise the north.

There was to be no real triumph, and Victoria would never get to colonise northern Australia. But Burke certainly divided his party. Much of the stores and a quarter of the animals were dumped at Menindie, on the Darling River, after a wretched journey through Victorian rain and bogs and the heartless plains of NSW. That first part of the journey had virtually broken the expedition, and all because Burke was so pig-headed and paranoid about being undermined by rivals. Just days before the trek began, he had reversed a decision to send the 20 tonnes of supplies by ship to Adelaide and then up the Murray and the Darling by riverboat to Menindie. He was afraid of sabotage, and so condemned his men and animals to a dreadful, draining overland slog. The time it took guaranteed the expedition would reach its toughest challenges during the heat of high summer.

After the dumping at Menindie, most of the remaining men and animals were then left 600km further north beneath the coolibah tree at Cooper Creek while Burke, Wills, ex-soldier John King and a former sailor, Charlie Gray, set off for the gulf, about 1500km away.

They had barely enough food for three months the time Burke calculated the trip would take. He told the party left at the Cooper to wait for three months and longer if possible. Wills, more pragmatically, quietly ordered the group at the Cooper to wait four months.

The trip north proved tough and slow. The four men took six camels and one horse, and reduced supplies to the point there were no tents.

Lessons for the Artist

1. Don't venture off without enough knowledge. Keep honing your skills. Maintain low level, related work, but do not accept anything that piles more on you. While you are establishing yourself, earn a base income and focus on developing your artistic work. Do not accept promotions which will steal your energy. Keep your eyes firmly on the prize.

2. Work collaboratively with and learn from other artists. Involve yourself in artistic communities and share ideas. The Soul Food is a community where ideas are exchanged. It is based on sharing and reciprocity. Exchange of goods and services of approximately equal value takes place between two or more parties. The exchange doesn't have to take place immediately. Reciprocity is one way a group of people form close relationships to promote the well being of the entire group.

3. Use other people's recipes carefully. Joseph Campbell had a profound impact on my art. When I found myself at the crossroads, needing to make choices about how to live and work, I read some of Campbell's advice. He said that "the normal situation is that, perhaps for years, you work away at your art, your life vocation, your life fulfilling field of action, and there's no money in it. You have to live though so you get a job, which may be a low degree activity relative to what you are interested in. You could for instance, teach the art you are operating in."

I chose to let Campbell, who I admired, guide me. I gave up my positions of responsibility, began teaching at a reduced time fraction and only undertook projects which would enhance my art. The Soul Food Cafe was built during this period and remains my focus.

4. Art and writing can be isolating enough. Do not worry about 'rivals'! Skilled artists and creators are invariably generous and you can learn an enormous amount from them.

When I was mastering web design I monitored key sites. Ruth Folit at Life Journal, Journal Coach, Sue Meyn and Cathy Tudor at One Woman's Writing Retreat gave incredibly generously and provided important role models.

Similarly, Chris Dunmire at the Creativity Portal and Tera Leigh have been important figures in my web work. I never saw any of these women as rivals or competitors even although we work in a similar fields. Their work is not the 'same as mine' and we respect each others creativity and artistry.

5. Maintain reality checks to ensure that you do not become disorientated and lose direction. Do something every day to further your mission. Learn how to market yourself. Tera Leigh has a series of articles on goal setting and marketing that provide invaluable insights for any artist seeking to market themselves. You will also find that Michele Pariza Wacek's articles about marketing informative.

Heather Blakey

This template has used elements of the famous Burke and Wills painting by Sidney Nolan (19171992) Collection Nolan Gallery, Cultural Facilities Corporation Canberra