Beyond Leichhardt:
Bushcraft and the Exploration of Australia

Glen McLaren

Fremantle Arts Centre Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Rather than another history of the explorers who mapped Australia, Beyond Leichhardt is an account of the skills and techniques which underlay their successes and failures. It is chronological, beginning with the early, hesitant attempts at exploration and ending with the widespread attainment of generalised competence. The expeditions discussed include those of Oxley, Sturt, Mitchell, Grey, Leichhardt, the Gregory and Forest brothers, Stuart, Giles, and the scientific expeditions into the West Australian deserts in the 1890s.

McLaren does describe the formal scientific training, or lack thereof, of the explorers and their companions, but this is clearly not his main interest or an area where he has much expertise (he offers little more than bland generalities on the subject). At the centre of his attention are the more practical skills acquired by explorers over the course of the century: the use of appropriate clothing, tent flies, and other tools and equipment; the handling of Aboriginal contacts; hunting and the use of bush foods; navigation; the move from carts and bullocks to horses (and camels); the proper handling of these animals (McLaren obviously has a firsthand knowledge of matters equestrian); psychological adaptation to Australian conditions; and all the other things that constitute "bushcraft".

The major failing of Beyond Leichhardt is that it lacks any kind of unifying thesis and any structure other than the chronological. It has nothing resembling an introduction or a conclusion: the opening chapter is a sketchy seven page account of the rise of British scientific societies; the closing chapter stops abruptly with the return of the Horn expedition in 1896. McLaren jumps from topic to topic in a huge area, spending time on whatever he finds most appealing. This leads to a frustrating lack of focus; it is also somewhat odd given Beyond Leichhardt's origins as a PhD thesis (the endnotes contain full references).

A more minor complaint is that there is no discussion of the derivation of bushcraft skills from Aboriginal sources. An account of Aboriginal "bushcraft" would surely have made a more relevant opening chapter.

There is, however, a lot of interesting material in Beyond Leichhardt. As a bushwalker I have always wondered about the logistic details of extended expeditions and the equipment explorers carried; I found Beyond Leichhardt a fascinating source of information on the subject.

July 1996

Related reviews:
- books about Australia + Australian history
- books about exploration
- books published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press
%T Beyond Leichhardt
%S Bushcraft and the Exploration of Australia
%A McLaren, Glen
%I Fremantle Arts Centre Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 1863681310
%P 316pp