Sunday, July 11, 2010

Burke's Farewell

I had joked in the past about starting my tour of Australia on the same day as Burke and Wills started their ill-fated expedition, after finding the monument in Royal Park (Melbourne) - because it would be 150 years since that day if I started on August 20, and I could start from Royal Park with people dressed up as camels and everything...

However, I also figured that would be bad luck. That does not mean that Burke and Wills are simply going to go away, it seems. They are following me, as I will explain...

Last Friday, after spending the morning being boring sitting in an internet café, I walked around the Castlemaine botanical gardens, getting some practice with my dSLR camera. (I'll try getting some of these pictures up on picasa at some stage). As well as a more formal area, the gardens has an area of remnant bushland that I was having fun trudging around in. On the way back into town I took some snaps of the local buildings and also visited the Old Castlemaine Gaol for more photography of its buildings and also the view back to town from the hill.

Friday night I attended a Burke and Wills commemerative dinner at Castlemaine's historic Theatre Royal which I had learned about from a bill posting in town. The Theatre Royal is apparently the first of it's kind in Australia, and is one of the longest continuously running entertainment establishments in Victoria. It was originally built in 1855, only to burn down two years later and be quickly rebuilt.

Why the farewell dinner? Why Castlemaine? Robert O'Hara Burke was originally the Chief of Police or something at Castlemaine, before being nominated as expedition leader. Castlemaine had a farewell dinner for him about a month before he led the expedition.

Due to deciding to attend this commemerative dinner at the last minute, I was only able to get a balcony seat and not actually get dinner, but instead could still see the show after the dinner was served to the full-paying guests.

Beforehand there was a selection of wines on offer, including Burke's Farewell Shiraz (only available by the bottle).

The show started with a selection of locals playing the parts of various key figures in the events leading up to, and during, the Burke's farewell dinner 150 years ago, give or take a few days. These included Robert O'Hara Burke - somewhat appropriately played by the local policeman - and a representative from the Royal Society, a local clergy member, and a few others. They read excerpts from speeches and letters as reported at the time in the media and the public records.
With an assistant holding up cards at the appropriate moments, the audience was able to help reenact the atmosphere of the time with cheers and jeers. Ladies were not allowed to attend the original farewell dinner so we were asked to don a cardboard beard to make the reenactment more accurate.

The words on the banner are "He's the man from Galway. Success to the Exploring Expedition"

There were funny moments where - because you knew the outcome - the words used in speeches proved very fateful, and also being able to draw interesting parrallels with today - like when Burke said in response to his nomination as leader of the expedition that he was not
a political man, in fact he couldn't tell the difference between the parties, to which a few in the audience were heard to shout 'Neither can we!'

Apparently at the time there was talk of Burke's unsuitability as the leader of the expedition, with a comment on the public record that he would have trouble finding his way from Beechworth to Wangaratta!

After this reenactment, a man presented a series of slides, photographs and paintings, interleaved with appropriate excerpts from the film archives of the 1985 Burke and Wills movie staring Jack Thompson. The Royal Society has been successful in partitioning the
national film archives association in restoring the master tapes this financial year and releasing to DVD.

During this presentation they even rolled a stuffed camel across the stage, with bottles of rum strapped on, a reference to the rum taken on the journey to apparently allieve the camels of scurvy. Someone had even put a fake beard on the camel.

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