Book extract: Whispering Wire

Intrigued by the story behind the 3200km-long Overland Telegraph Line, author Rosamund Burton set out to trace its path through the heart of Australia – beginning with a gruelling bike ride from Adelaide to the outback SA town of Farina.

Oct 20, 2022, updated Oct 20, 2022

The Overland Telegraph Line was completed in August 1872 and connected to the rest of the world on October 22 the same year, with Wakefield Press’s publication of Burton’s travel memoir marking the 150th anniversary of its operation. The line transformed communication ­– the first telegraph message from London to Adelaide took just seven hours to arrive, compared with the weeks it would have taken by ship – but as the writer discovered, its development also had a devastating impact on Aboriginal Australians living along its route.

Irish-born, Sydney-based Burton ­– who is in Adelaide this week for the book launch – became interested in the story of the building of the line after driving along the Oodnadatta Track with her husband more than 15 years ago. She mapped out a route by which she could follow its path, and Whispering Wire: Tracing the Overland Telegraph Line through the Heart of Australia interweaves her travel adventures with history.

This extract comes from chapter four of the book, where Burton and her friend Fleur leave the home of another friend (Denise) in Adelaide to embark on the 800km cycle which will take them through the Flinders Ranges to the deserted outback town of Farina, after which she is to continue her journey towards Darwin in a four-wheel-drive with her husband.

Fleur and Rosamund prepare to set off on the first leg of Ros’s journey following the path of the Overland Telegraph Line.

Chapter 4 – On Our Way

I wake up when my alarm goes off at half past six feeling excited but apprehensive. Fleur’s bedroom door is open, and I stick my head in to find her already dressed.

‘How did you sleep?’ I ask.

‘Not well. I’m too nervous,’ she replies. I put on my Bonds vest, a longsleeved thin woollen top, a thin cotton shirt and scarf, a zip-up sleeveless top, woollen long johns under my shorts and thick socks. Next is the pair of Australian green jade earrings I bought when Steve and I travelled to Port Lincoln a couple of years ago. I feel they are not only pretty but also lucky.

Denise was adamant last night that she would cook us breakfast before we set off, so at half past seven we sit down to fresh fruit, bacon and eggs, followed by toast and marmalade, and mugs of tea.

At eight o’clock Fleur and I walk around the corner with her front wheel to North Adelaide Cycles. Kim clears the axle shaft in an instant but suggests that we wheel past when we’re on our way, so he can give Fleur’s bike a quick check before we head off. Fleur returns to Denise’s to assemble her bicycle, and I head to the bakery to buy bread rolls for lunch.

In Denise’s garage Fleur attaches her compact panniers to her rear rack, while I wrestle to secure my two large heavy ones to my bike. Denise waves us off with a final gift of a bag of hard-boiled eggs, and we cycle around the corner to the bicycle shop.

‘You’ve got a lot of gear if you’re not camping,’ Kim says when we pull up. Taking a closer look at my two bulging panniers, he adds, ‘If it’s more than 20 kilos, I’m worried your rack may break under the strain.’ After weeks of culling to reduce my clothes, books, and equipment down to the bare minimum, the thought the rack might give way on a bumpy track in the outback hadn’t occurred to me. But when Kim starts talking about attaching a trailer to the back of my bike, I decide I’ll take my chances with the rack.

He catches sight of the odometer I’ve borrowed from a friend. Laying a tape measure out on the pavement, he measures a rotation of my wheel. He says the odometer needs to be recalibrated, because it’s slightly overestimating distance. But then he discovers it can’t be adjusted.

Kim is used to preparing cyclists for long rides, but two women in their 50s planning to ride 800 kilometres impresses him so much that he prises his wife, Melissa, out of her hairdressing salon next door, along with her client – who has half her hair pinned up and the other half down mid-dying – to wave us off. Kim hugs us both and says to ring if we have problems.

As we freewheel down the hill from North Adelaide to the river, I’m elated to be starting this journey. Seeing the city skyline with its skyscrapers and multiple high-rise buildings, I try to imagine how Adelaide would have looked when John McDouall Stuart arrived here from Scotland in 1839 a few years after the colony of South Australia was founded. Colonel William Light had drawn up his plans for the city, Holy Trinity Church has been built, and there was a scattering of single-storey buildings. There were no trains, no bicycles – let alone cars – and people travelled by foot, on horseback, in horse-drawn carriages or in wagons pulled by bullocks.

Both of John McDouall Stuart’s parents died when he was only 11 years old. At the time he attended with his older brother the Scottish Naval and Military Academy in Edinburgh. John’s two younger sisters were sent to boarding school, and a family servant kept house for the two boys and their eldest brother, who was studying medicine.

Short, shy and not good with words, John McDouall Stuart was considered unsuitable for military service, the civil service or the church. He trained as a civil engineer, and a career in the colonies was considered the best option. There is a story that Stuart was engaged to a woman named Mary Russell, but before asking her to accompany him to Australia he saw her kissing another man. Unknown to Stuart, the man was Mary’s cousin, who was also emigrating to the colonies. Consumed by jealousy, Stuart sailed to Australia and never saw his fiancée again. He was 23 years old and showed little interest in women for the rest of his life.

In 1844, employed as a draftsman, he joined Charles Sturt’s expedition to find the geological centre of the continent and to determine whether there was an inland sea. After setting out from Adelaide they spent months stranded in desert country in western NSW at a lagoon they named Depot Glen. The party suffered scurvy, which killed the surveyor, James Poole, and Stuart was promoted to expedition surveyor. After 18 months the party limped back to Adelaide, reporting that it looked as if the new colony of South Australia was hemmed in by scrubland and dry salt lakes with limited pastoral land.

In 1858 the South Australian government offered rewards for the discovery of new grazing country, and pastoralist William Finke commissioned Stuart to explore country west of Lake Torrens. He set out with an assistant bushman, an Aboriginal tracker and a month’s food. The pace of travel on Charles Sturt’s earlier expedition had been dictated by the 200 sheep they took for food, but Stuart was determined to travel much faster. He rode Polly, a small bay mare he had recently bought. North-west of Lake Torrens, Stuart discovered a running river, which he named Chambers Creek, after James Chambers, Finke’s business partner, who would finance his future expeditions and become a close friend. They continued to what is now Coober Pedy and southwards. They ran out of supplies, the tracker left Stuart and the bushman, and three weeks later the two emaciated white men, having survived on mice, pigface plant and the odd crow, finally reached a remote outstation hut.

But Stuart returned to Adelaide a hero. At almost no cost to the colony he had found grazing lands larger in size than the whole of Norway. As his reward, the South Australian government granted him a lease on a thousand square miles at Chambers Creek. That he had mapped such a vast area so impressed the Royal Geographical Society in London that he was awarded a gold watch.

Financed by William Finke and James Chambers, Stuart set off again almost immediately to survey his land claim, and to search for gold in South Australia’s quartz-rich Davenport Range, before pushing northwards through the continent. His companions were David Herrgott, a Bavarian artist and naturalist, and Louis Müller, a stockman and amateur botanist, who both had experience in gold mining. One of James Chambers’s stockmen also rode part of the way with them.

The group travelled between Lake Torrens and Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre. Desperate for water in the desert country, Herrgott discovered a group of freshwater springs bubbling out of the top of mounds. Stuart named them Herrgott Springs (later the town here was also known as Hergott Springs, until renamed Marree in World War I due to anti-German sentiment). Travelling north-west, the men found more mound springs. Stuart realised this chain of springs provided a permanent water source for a route across this section of the continent. The party ventured 150 kilometres further north than any previous explorers. But they ran out of shoes for the horses and, unable to find water, they were forced to turn back.



‘We’ll get there,’ Fleur says as I photograph her on the bridge. Her strong affirmative statement reassures me. My entire focus has been on setting off, and although we’ve planned our route day by day, I’ve given little thought to any obstacles we might encounter.

At half past ten we eventually start cycling. The first 15 kilometres to the start of the Mawson Trail follow the River Torrens through city suburbs, and as the cycle path is flat we estimate it will take us about an hour. Already I’m hungry.

Denise told us a cycle path runs along both sides of the river; we decide to follow the one on the north bank. But it deviates onto a street, so we backtrack until we find a bridge to the opposite bank. Kim’s parting words were ‘When you’re cycling along the Torrens, always make sure you can see the river’. I thought he was joking. But heeding his words from then on, we zigzag from one bank to the other following the most prominent path.

We cycle through a park, where three children chase each other around a river red gum while their mother watches from her picnic rug. Then, barely out of Adelaide’s CBD, we lose the river completely. Fleur tries to bring up Google Maps on the iPhone she has borrowed from a friend, while I wave the map in the face of a young Asian mother standing in a driveway and demand directions. Returning, I explain we need to go to the right.

‘No, we head this way,’ Fleur replies, indicating to the left.

‘We’re here,’ I say, jabbing the map.

‘No, we’re there,’ she responds, peering at a dot on the phone.

Each of us is adamant we should head in opposite directions. Fleur is about to pedal one way and I’m taking off in the other direction when it dawns on me that although we know each other well in many ways, in others we don’t know each other at all. I have no idea if Fleur has any sense of direction, but even if she doesn’t, I realise it isn’t a good idea to lose my companion so early in the piece, particularly as most of the food is in her panniers. So I turn tail and follow her. Several U-turns and river crossings later, we’re back on the north bank. The path doesn’t deviate from the river again, and we continue until we reach the weir. It has taken us two and a quarter hours to get here, and now I’m very hungry. I lean my bicycle against a huge stone pier of an old aqueduct.

‘This is the perfect place for lunch,’ I say.

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‘Rossie, we’re not yet halfway,’ Fleur points out, as she studies the map. ‘We should get a few more kilometres behind us before we stop.’ I agree reluctantly. ‘But we need to have lunch soon.’

We cycle along Gorge Road, a winding route that follows the river. Lined with red rocks dripping with orange-tipped she-oaks, this road brings us to a sign for Mawson Trail, which indicates a dirt track heading up into the hills. Ten minutes later we’re wheeling our bikes, as the track is too steep to ride. Even pushing my bicycle is hard. I have to stop every 50 metres to catch my breath, and all I can think of is how long it’s been since Denise’s delectable breakfast. When I suggest that now would be a good time for lunch, Fleur insists we press on. I lag further and further behind her, seriously questioning if I have the stamina to make it to Woodside today, let alone cycle to Farina. No amount of water quenches my thirst and I’m sweating profusely.

At two o’clock I see Fleur stop at the top of a hill. By the time I push my bike up to her she has taken out her homemade Anzac biscuits and a tin of salmon. From my pannier I dig out the bread rolls and a tomato. It’s such a relief to rest and finally eat. We sit looking back down the red-earth track lined with red gums and grass trees towards Adelaide and the ocean in the far distance. There is no breeze, and not even the sound of a bird breaks the silence.

Minutes after we set off again we find ourselves on a slope so steep that even pushing our bikes is nearly impossible.

‘What about both of us pushing one bike at a time up the hill?’ I suggest, as once again my boots slip back over the stones.

‘No!’ Fleur replies, ever practical, but with no explanation as to why she thinks my logic is flawed. She has set the pace all day and coaxed me on when all I’ve wanted to do is stop, so I don’t argue. I feel physically drained. Fleur is ahead, as usual, doggedly pushing on. The space between us widens, but I’m powerless to go faster. My arms ache from holding the handlebars in one hand and the saddle in the other, and it’s only with immense effort that I can push my bicycle, with its bulging panniers, as my soles have no grip on the steep incline. I inch up this remote forest track in the Adelaide Hills, stopping every few steps to catch my breath. It’s three o’clock and already there’s a coolness in the air.

The day is slipping away and it will be dark in a couple of hours. We haven’t seen either a vehicle or another person on this track. I am exhausted and unsure if I can go much further. As I lose my footing on this stony incline yet again, I’m gripped by a fear that we won’t make it. Despair is creeping over me until two elderly men appear at the top of the hill and stroll down the track towards us.

They walked out this way this morning and are now on the return. ‘After this hill,’ one assures us, ‘the track is not so steep.’

‘There are hills,’ says the other, ‘but on a bicycle, it shouldn’t be too bad, as there are parts where you’ll be able to cycle.’

Filled with renewed hope, we press on. Fleur has raced ahead – again – and I follow as fast as I can, wishing I was fitter. I feel jealous, seeing how the hours Fleur spent at the gym over the last few months are now paying off. Already, on this winter afternoon, the daylight is starting to fade.

We cross the Heysen Trail, the 1200-kilometre walking track from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges, named after the artist Hans Heysen, whose paintings we saw at the art gallery. The Mawson Trail veers to the left round a hill. We follow it, but then think that we missed a signpost as it feels as if we have completed a large circle and are now going back on ourselves. We reach a gate and lift our bikes over the low wooden pole beside it. It’s four o’clock. The sun is sinking. It’s getting cold and we’re lost. We pore over the map, wondering where we are and, more to the point, where we should be going. There is no mobile phone reception up here and no houses visible.

I have a vision of us spending our first night huddled together on a hillside in sub-zero temperatures. It’s reassuring to know that inside my pannier is Steve’s EPIRB – emergency position-indicating radio beacon – which he takes on offshore yacht races. If we really find ourselves in dire straits, this device can send a distress message to the nearest rescue services.

We are walking our bikes into an open area when a ute pulls off the track and stops. We explain to the driver that we’re trying to get to Woodside.

‘It’s a long way,’ he replies after a pause. He suggests we take the track from here to a village called Lenswood and go to Woodside from there.

‘That’s the quickest route,’ he says.

Luckily it’s mostly downhill to Lenswood. Our mobile reception returns when we get there, so I ring Steve to let him know that we’re nearly at the hotel. ‘Why aren’t you there already?’ he responds, as someone who is always early.

The final stretch to Woodside is along Tiers Road, which runs through rolling hills bathed in soft evening light. These last kilometres seem endless and by the outskirts of the small rural township I know I’m unable to make it up another hill. But to my relief, the hotel is at the bottom of the main street immediately ahead of us.

I look down at the odometer and see this was not the modest 35 kilometres that we planned for our first day but 46 kilometres. Maybe it was our numerous deviations along the River Torrens, or getting lost in the hills that added the extra kilometres or, as Kim had said, the odometer could need recalibration. Perhaps the extra kilometres are just a gross exaggeration.

Fleur goes into the hotel and reappears with a young woman, who shows us a shelter at the back of the Victorian brick building, near the kitchen, where we can leave our bicycles for the night. She gives us a key to our room on the first floor.

Fleur takes the single bed and gives me the double. A flat-screen television hangs on the wall, but there are no bedside tables or lights. The carpet has a faint stale beer smell and is slightly sticky, but the sheets and towels are crisp and clean.

Immediately I empty the contents of my panniers onto the bed, knowing it’s imperative to lighten my load. The tome on inland plants of Australia has to go, as does my copy of What Bird Is That? The checked shirt and my deck shoes, which I put in as evening wear, aren’t essential. I also jettison a T-shirt and cotton knapsack.

Next door to our room is a small kitchen. It has a door onto the wide wooden verandah, where there are several old armchairs and ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts. The only table in the kitchen is piled with dirty plates. It’s not a place to linger, so we make ourselves two mugs of tea and retreat to our room.

‘I usually stay in five-star hotels when I’m with Martin,’ Fleur remarks, sitting cross-legged on the bed. After a day of goading me along and now these gloomy surroundings, I fear she might want to give up on our expedition. But an hour later in the recently renovated dining room, as we sip red wine and tuck into delicious lamb shanks, she turns to me with a satisfied smile.

‘I like a challenge,’ she says.

Whispering Wire, by Rosamund Burton, is published this month by Wakefield Press. This extract is republished with permission.


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