SOME FIND SPIRITUALITY THROUGH RELIGION. Sarah Murgatroyd found succour in the Australian inland. Such terrain could not have been more alien from England’s manicured lushness, yet the BBC journalist was entranced from first exposure in 1997 when she drove north-west from Sydney “until the roads turned red and the horizon dissolved into a quivering mass of earth and sky.” The outback, she wrote, “is a vast collage of contrasting landscapes, with dimensions of space and light that are as overwhelming as they are exhilarating.”
Such visceral appreciation escapes many. Irish-born explorer Robert O’Hare Burke, for instance, entered history books because he had little empathy for that environment: in 1860 he said, "I will cross Australia or perish in the attempt." He was half right.
The desert, Murgatroyd and the legend of Burke and Wills became entwined 140 years later when Murgatroyd wrote her own history book on that ill-fated voyage to find a route from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. It took three years, and led its author three times to travel the explorers’ route. The Dig Tree was published in February. Last week, six weeks after its release, Murgatroyd died. She was 34, and her death has shocked the literary community, most of whom were unaware she was ill.
Murgatroyd insisted on such secrecy, her publisher, Michael Heyward, says: “It was a contract condition that no mention was ever made of her health – she was a true writer, she wanted her book judged on its merits alone.”
Murgatroyd, however, had won a desperate race against time. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993 and although rigorous intervention appeared to have restored her health, doctors discovered bone cancer three years later. Their prognosis was bleak, a few months maximum.
The day she received the verdict, she sat with her husband, Kevin Butler, watching the tide turn at Coogee as they struggled to accept the verdict. “We felt we were in a soppy scene from a B-grade movie,” Butler later told friends.
Murgatroyd herself broke the pessimistic mood. “Damn it,” she said, “I’m not going to accept this – I’ll get a second opinion and fight. This disease will not define my life.” She sought every intervention to buy time, adopted strategies to combat the restrictions her illness induced.
That, her friends say, is how she was: unsentimental and tough-minded. And she would be devastated if people pitied her now or judged her work by her untimely end. Because in the end, her ambition became finely focused – she wanted to live long enough to see her book released. It was to be a physical reminder of her life and a tribute to a land she’d grown to love.
Publication was a great personal triumph. Critics were enthused, Tim Flannery declaring it a "must read for anyone interested in our history”, Gallipoli author Les Carlyon praising Murgatroyd for knowing “how to craft a story … as clear as a country creek". Rights were snapped up in Germany, the US and Britain. The Times tipped it as an international title to watch.
Yet even as it raced up bestseller lists, her health deteriorated. “Once she saw her book in the bookshops,” her friend, BBC journalist Dominic Hughes, says, “her body just seemed to give up.”
Doctors said she had only days before she would be too ill to travel. Friends rallied to pack up the house and she and Kevin flew home to England, where she spent her last month at her mother’s village, near Woking.
“I’m convinced she only kept body and soul together until the book was out,” her publisher, Michael Heyward, says. “Once it was published, her health fell precipitously.”
The eldest of three, Murgatroyd was “a woman of very firm opinions”, friends say, a gentle stirrer “who loved to argue until her point was conceded, whether she believed it or not.” They recall her as having “mad adventures, always asking questions … she was the most active, fit outdoorsy person who delighted in tramping over the Welsh hills or mountain biking or scuba diving.”
Her physicality had been nurtured on her parents’ 65-hectare dairy farm, a holding so small, she said, that “you could throw a Frisbee from one side of the paddock to the other.” After her parents divorced in her teens, she was head girl at boarding school until she was expelled. Her sense of adventure did not sit well there.
Murgatroyd met Butler when she was 17, and they had a “good friends” relationship for years before becoming romantically involved. She graduated with honours in philosophy and literature at Warwick University, travelled extensively through China, India and the Himalayas then studied journalism at Cardiff University. In 1992 she joined the BBC as a radio news journalist, a job she loved.
Butler, however, had won a position in a Sydney engineering company. Torn between career and adventure, Murgatroyd stayed in England until after her first bout with cancer, then joined him in Coogee. A BBC stringer, she covered such stories as the Port Arthur massacre and the Stolen Generation and quickly established a wide social network.
After the bone cancer struck, journalism became impractical. She and Butler married in the Daintree in a clearing by a rainforest creek, with just Hughes, his wife Sophie and Butler’s best man present. And several dozen bottles of champagne sent from friends.
Soon after, she and Butler took an eight-month trans-Australia sojourn and at Cooper Creek, site of the famous Dig Tree that marks Burke’s death, she became fascinated by their legend. "The atmosphere around the tree was really powerful, a bit like when you walk into an old building and can feel something but don't know what or why," she recalled. She later trawled Victorian state archives to finding original accounts of the journey and decided to write a fresh analysis, complete with new evidence she had uncovered.
By this stage she was in constant pain, and in the last couple of years wore a back brace and walked with a cane. Until then, her 4WD became her legs as she travelled the outback, camping with her swag around a campfire. On one six-week trip she learned how to saddle, pack and ride camels, and trekked some of world’s harshest country, shredding her leather boots on the sharp rocks. The only concession she made to her condition was to pack a jam jar of morphine and an emergency beacon should either become necessary.
As her body weakened, writing kept her focused. She was also very focused on how the book should appear. We didn’t choose her, Heyward laughs, “she chose us. She had specific requirements and interviewed us to ensure we were suitable. She was the bravest person I’ve met, inspiring with her determination to do something with her life.”
Some 18 months ago, Murgatroyd moved from Coogee to Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains. It was time, she told Hughes, “to focus on the micro rather than the macro’’. She was happy just to watch birds feed off her balcony, although even then she displayed trademark enthusiasm in ticking off an impressive catalogue of sightings. And she remained as fiercely opinionated as ever: “Cliched and unadventurous” she writes in a November 2000 listener review of a just-released Morcheeba album on Triple J’s website, “what a sell-out.”
Sarah Murgatroyd was buried on Wednesday in a private ceremony in Woking. That was her wish. Her friends respected that, but they cannot let her go so quietly. Next weekend, more than 200 of them will gather in Sussex to celebrate her life. And tomorrow, her Coogee clan will reunite for its own “bloody big party”. She taught us all to seize the moment, Hughes says, “to live life to the full. We’re determined her end should not be doleful.” That’s why the accent will be on champagne, laughter and shared anecdotes. Her friends know she'd have it no other way.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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