The Surveyor’s Obsession opens with the Burke and Wills funeral procession through Melbourne’s streets in 1863. Three years earlier, the ill-fated pair died of thirst and starvation while attempting to reach what we now know as the Gulf of Carpentaria – Australia’s northern coastline. While the Australian colonies are about to experience an economic downturn, those attending the procession in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities would never know it.
In the gold mining area of Mount Alexander in the colony of Victoria, Lizzie Bartlemas knows nothing of economics or explorers. Like most young women of marriageable age, she lives a poor but fun filled life on the diggings with her unorthodox family. Her mother runs a free hospital for miners and her father operates a touring circus. Her knowledge instead is of Chinese herbal medicine, midwifery, school teaching and the lot of miners’ wives in a harsh and unforgiving landscape pocked with pits and filled with deadly creatures of all kinds.
Gold and wool are the country’s economic backbone, and the great Murray-Darling river system is the conduit that feeds the colonial product down to the ports of southern Australia. Civil war rages in America, halting trade between the two countries, but nothing can stop the creeping fingers of religious morality that threatens to stifle the spirit of an entire generation in a veil of black crepe. Only those living in frontier towns have any hope of adventure in their lives – those like Lizzie Bartlemas and her wonderfully untamed family.