6 Unlucky Australians Who Couldn't Catch a Break

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Last month, I wrote an article about fortunate Australians, which suggested that the nation deserves to be called "The Lucky Country." Today's follow-up will bring us back down to Earth. Aussies, like everyone else, have the occasional spell of bad luck. Witness the following not-so-lucky examples.

1. James Lister and the Tom brothers

Edward Hargraves had not been one of life's winners, failing miserably at several business endeavours. He went to California for the 1848 gold rush, but while others were striking it rich, he didn't even find a speck. Back in Australia, he remembered the town of Bathurst (west of Sydney), where the terrain had reminded him of the Californian goldfields. Based on this vague logic, he set out to Bathurst, accompanied by James Lister, William Tom and James Tom. They could find no gold, so Hargraves gave up and left. In April 1851, however, Lister struck gold "“ and immediately informed Hargraves. Though it was meant to be top-secret, Hargraves announced the finding, took the credit (and a handsome reward from the government), and started an Australian gold rush. As tens of thousands of prospectors descended on Bathurst, Lister and the Tom brothers were robbed of their chance to become multi-millionaires. Hargraves took their gold, and gave them his bad luck in return.

2. The Population of Darwin

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As most of its 110,000 residents would tell you, the northern city of Darwin is a great place to live. Just as well, as Darwinians have always had to take the rough with the smooth. The town was settled in 1864. Just eleven years later, a quarter of the population boarded the ship Gothenburg for their first excursion to the east coast since moving north. Struck by a cyclone, the Gothenburg sank off the coast of north Queensland, killing 102 people and leaving the town in misery. They were still recovering in January 1878, when another cyclone struck the Darwin area itself, damaging every single building in the outer suburb of Palmerston. Other cyclones struck in 1881 and 1897. The latter, known as the "great hurricane," hit the town on January 6, 1897, destroying 18 pearling boats and a government steam-ship. One preacher, recalling the night, described it as "a gentle reminder from Providence that we are a very sinful people." If God's punishment was the explanation, Darwin must have been a den of iniquity, as cyclones would visit every 20 years, causing further death and destruction in 1917 and 1937.

To prove that it wasn't just God who held a grudge against Darwin, a contingent of Japanese aircraft bombed the city on January 20, 1942. At least 243 lives were lost, as the bombs caused more wreckage than any of the previous cyclones. This was followed by another 62 air raids over the next two years "“ one of the drawbacks of being a crucial Allied port.

The next 30 years were relatively quiet, so the natives were ill-prepared for Cyclone Tracy, which rudely woke them up on Christmas Day in 1974 (the wreckage is pictured above). Within three hours, 65 people were dead, and 90 percent of the houses were either demolished or literally swept away. Most of the population left soon after, but a bulk of them returned by the end of the year, ready for whatever fate was thrown at them. Proof that, in quieter times, it must be a really good place to live!

3. Burke & Wills

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One of Australia's most famous expeditions, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills' bold 1860 quest to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria is a case history in how not to explore Australia. Despite walking through the vast desert for 10 months, the intrepid duo didn't survive their journey.

But while they might have made some costly (and a few plain stupid) mistakes, they also suffered from incredibly bad luck. After eight months in the wilderness, they returned from the Gulf "“ suffering from terrible thirst, hunger, heat and exhaustion "“ to their depot at Coopers Creek on April 21, 1861. To their dismay, they found that the depot party had abandoned camp a mere seven hours earlier, leaving only a small quantity of flour, porridge, rice and dried meat. While Wills suggested waiting for the party to return, the headstrong Burke insisted on moving on "“ not to the staging camp, 650 miles away, but to a police outpost at Mount Hopeless "“ much closer, but still appropriately named.

Had they waited at Coopers Creek just three weeks, they would have met William Brahe, the leader of the Cooper's Creek party, who returned to see if they had arrived. They had left details for him, but "“ in their exhausted state "“ had neglected to leave a sign. As a result, he never saw their note that would have raised a search party.

After losing their camels to quicksand and fatigue, the explorers were temporarily saved from starvation and thirst by some Aborigines. Realizing that they couldn't make it to Mount Hopeless, however, they returned to Coopers Creek. Brahe had left no trace of his return.

With no other option, they tried to find the Aborigines again. Burke and Wills, however, both died in July "“ not long before their only surviving traveling companion, John King, met the Aborigines, and stayed with them until a rescue party found him in September. Their timing, like everything else, was fatally flawed.

4. Raelene Boyle

aussie-luck.jpgMost Australian sports fans will agree that Raelene Boyle was one of the country's best-ever female athletes. If things had happened as expected, she would have four Olympic gold medals. But as luck would have it, she was forever denied sports' greatest honor "“ despite competing in three Olympics. At Mexico City in 1968, aged 17, she won silver in the women's 200-meter dash. She was beaten by East Germany's Renate Stecher, who was later revealed to be on stimulants. In Munich 1972, despite being the favorite, she again had to settle for silver in 100-meter and 200-meter races "“ again beaten by steroid-pumped East German athletes. Her last opportunity was in Montreal 1976. Unfortunately, that happened to be an Olympiad in which the entire Australian team seemed cursed "“ and Boyle, true to form, was no exception. In the 200-meter semi-finals, the starter claimed that she had rolled her shoulder, and she was disqualified for two false starts "“ even though the assistant starter told her: "You didn't break. I don't know why he's given you one." (Both the footage and an electronic starter's report would confirm that there was no break, but it was too late.) "I'm pretty certain that the race would have been mine," said Boyle. "I was running very well and I was in the best shape of my life." To win gold, all she needed to do was equal her time in Munich.

For most athletes, of course, three silver medals would be brilliant. Boyle, however, was a step above most athletes. While she easily had the ability to be an Olympic champion, she didn't have the good fortune.

5. Second placers

hinkler_badge_350.jpgAs Raelene Boyle proved, Aussies have often had to make do with coming second. Charles Lindbergh became an American hero (and international superstar) when he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927. Most people have forgotten the second man to fly solo across the Atlantic: Bert Hinkler, a Queensland aviator. Four years after Linbergh's celebrated journey, he flew faster, chose a better route and used less fuel. Sadly for him, coming second just isn't the same. Even more sadly, he didn't have much time to promote himself, because he was killed in a plane crash in Italy in 1933.

Australia was also late to the four-minute mile. As athletics fans can easily tell you, this milestone was achieved in 1954 by Britain's Roger Bannister. But less than a month later (as you probably didn't know), his record was broken by Australia's John Landy, after many attempts to break four minutes. Outside Australia, where he is a national sporting hero, almost nobody remembers the man who was once the world's best one-mile runner. Timing is everything.

6. Australia's relay swimming team

Fukuoka2001.pngAt the 2001 World Swimming Championships at Fukuoka, Australia's 4x200-meter women's medley relay team swam the fastest drug-free time in history for that event. Excitedly, they jumped back in the pool to celebrate, looking forward to their gold medals.

They were not aware, however, of an obscure rule: they could not re-enter the pool until the race was over. The Italian team was still finishing, so the Australians were shocked to discover that they had been disqualified, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Australian media, which takes swimming very seriously, were unforgiving. One newspaper, which would otherwise have praised them to the skies, dismissed them as "four silly girls" "“ which was hardly fair, as the final swimmer was supposed to be in the water anyway, and the others insisted (convincingly enough) that they knew nothing of that rule. When you're busy training, memorizing little known sections of the rulebook is not really on your mind.

Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.

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October 20, 2008 - 10:04am
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