The man and his mis­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ba­bette Smith’s

TH­ESE two books on Lud­wig Le­ich­hardt com­ple­ment each other per­fectly. In Where is Dr Le­ich­hardt?, Dar­rell Lewis de­votes him­self to lay­ing out all the in­for­ma­tion avail­able about the hunt for the miss­ing ex­plorer that has fas­ci­nated Aus­tralians for more than 160 years. In Lud­wig Le­ich­hardt: Lost in the Out­back, Hans Fin­ger has trans­lated new ma­te­rial to present an in­ti­mate por­trait of Le­ich­hardt, the man. To­gether they pro­vide the tools for form­ing a view about an en­gross­ing puz­zle. Read­ers with as­pi­ra­tions to play de­tec­tive can take up the chal­lenge to suc­ceed where so many have failed.

First, some es­sen­tial back­ground: in April 1848, Prus­sian ex­plorer Lud­wig Le­ich­hardt left Mt Abun­dance, which was then at the Queens­land fron­tier, ac­com­pa­nied by six or maybe seven other men and a large bag­gage train of equip­ment and live­stock. He planned to trek across Aus­tralia through vast stretches of un­known coun­try to the set­tle­ment of Swan River in Western Aus­tralia.

It was not his first ex­ploratory jour­ney. To much colo­nial ac­claim, he suc­cess­fully opened a route from More­ton Bay to Port Ess­ing­ton dur­ing 1844-46. How­ever, a sec­ond ex­pe­di­tion in 1847 that was in­tended to travel west from More­ton Bay to Swan River had to be aban­doned due to rain, ill­ness and the loss of live­stock. The ef­fect of that fail­ure on Le­ich­hardt is not fully can­vassed in Lewis’s book but it is avail­able by turn­ing to Le­ich­hardt: Lost in the Out­back, of which more be­low.

Colo­nial so­ci­ety li­onised Le­ich­hardt from his ar­rival in New South Wales in 1842. The suc­cess of his first ex­pe­di­tion and the spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure of the sec­ond only in­creased his promi­nence. Great ex­pec­ta­tions were laid on the third jour­ney, some of them fu­elled by Le­ich­hardt, who un­der­stood their role in fundrais­ing. His dis­ap­pear­ance on this third trip is one of Aus­tralia’s great­est his­tor­i­cal mys­ter­ies, matched only per­haps by the tale of Las­seter’s gold.

Through the decades since Le­ich­hardt van­ished, just when the ex­plorer might have faded from the pub­lic mind, some­one has al­ways found an ob­ject — or tracks — which they claim proves he passed by, trig­ger­ing another round of spec­u­la­tion about his fate. In his 1957 novel Voss, Pa­trick White re­vived the ethe­real, enig­matic fig­ure who shifts and shim­mers in his­tory like a mi­rage. Now Lewis has done it again and a new gen­er­a­tion will pon­der what hap­pened to him. With mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to help, per­haps this time some­one will find a con­clu­sive an­swer.

Le­ich­hardt’s jour­ney to the west coast was ex­pected to take at least two years. Through 1849 and 1850, no­body wor­ried about the lack of news. By 1851, how­ever, his friends were con­cerned be­cause his sup­plies would have run out.

Where is Dr Le­ich­hardt? is the his­tory of the at­tempts to find him. And there were many.

The first search was made in 1851 by a squat­ter who was look­ing for new pas­tures. No fewer than 14 other at­tempts, both of­fi­cial and un­of­fi­cial, fol­lowed. Some were made by mem­bers of Le­ich­hardt’s ear­lier ex­pe­di­tions, some by his friends, by com­pet­ing ex­plor­ers, by men in search of fame for them­selves. Some were funded by the NSW gov­ern­ment, oth­ers by the Royal So­ci­ety in Lon­don. In 1865, the Ladies’ Le­ich­hardt Ex­pe­di­tion was launched to col­lect funds, with an or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee of 16 women, in­clud­ing two from each re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tion.

From the start, the press played an ac­tive role in fan­ning the flames around Le­ich­hardt’s dis­ap­pear­ance. Its en­thu­si­asm quickly blurred the dif­fer­ence be­tween fac­tual in­for­ma­tion and spec­u­la­tion. Ig­no­rance and dis­tor­tion built on ig­no­rance and dis­tor­tion, which Lewis care­fully disen­tan­gles, bring­ing clar­ity that helps the reader un­der­stand what hap­pened. Such was the fas­ci­na­tion with this mys­tery that in 1880, 30 years af­ter he van­ished, The Bul­letin of­fered a £1000 re­ward ‘‘ for the first con­clu­sive and sub­stan­tial proof of the place where Dr Lud­wig Le­ich­hardt, the Great Aus­tralian Ex­plorer, met his death’’.

The his­tory of who, when and what hap­pened in the hunt for Le­ich­hardt is a fas­ci­nat­ing and, at times, hi­lar­i­ous tale. For starters, mul­ti­ple the­o­ries abound re­gard­ing the route he took. Lewis or­gan­ises th­ese ge­o­graph­i­cally and as­sem­bles the in­for­ma­tion that supports or casts doubt on each one. The ev­i­dence in­cludes sto­ries about en­coun­ters and mas­sacres, marked trees, wheel tracks and arte­facts, all found or re­counted by a bunch of amaz­ing char­ac­ters.

The most ba­sic tool of an ex­plorer — that of the marked tree — be­comes a source of con­fu­sion and de­bate. Over more than a cen­tury peo­ple found ‘‘ L’’ trees ev­ery­where. Lewis picks his way through the com­pet­ing claims, es­tab­lish­ing which are prob­a­bly Le­ich­hardt’s marks and which are doubt­ful or im­pos­si­ble. It didn’t help that there was a sec­ond ex­plorer wan­der­ing around at the time whose name was Lands­bor­ough. Over-ea­ger searchers were prone to claim his ‘‘ Ls’’ were Le­ich­hardt’s. Fur­ther­more, some trees were sighted but later burned down, died or were washed away. Some ‘‘ L’’ trees were iden­ti­fied twice, thus mul­ti­ply­ing the num­ber that were said to ex­ist.

The Over­land Tele­graph was also un­help­ful. Tracks made by live­stock and drays were po­ten­tially a clue to Le­ich­hardt’s route, as were the re­mains of camp­sites and cook­ing and other im­ple­ments, bul­lock bones, pieces of iron and a tent peg. Once again, the weather was a cul­prit, oblit­er­at­ing or dam­ag­ing some of the clues. How­ever, crews from the Over­land Tele­graph, which was built across the desert from Dar­win to Port Au­gusta in South Aus­tralia dur­ing the 1870s, marked trees. They also camped and scat­tered arte­facts, a bit like mod­ern day Ever­est moun­taineers. Fur­ther­more, the con­struc­tion teams in­cluded men whose names be­gan with ‘‘ L’’.

One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects is the role of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. From the be­gin­ning they were key sources of in­for­ma­tion. Lewis ex­plores the de­tail of what they had to say, which varied from the be­lief that a party of white men per­ished from thirst, to an ac­count that they drowned, to another that they were mas­sa­cred by other Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. Some Abo­rig­ines claimed Le­ich­hardt’s end came at a fa­bled desti­na­tion called Bun­der­a­balla, but no­body ever quite reached it. Lewis writes, ‘‘ The lo­ca­tion of the death gets far­ther and far­ther away like a mi­rage that, when you stretch for it, evap­o­rates . . . The bones are al­ways ‘ two days away’ or Bun­der­a­balla it­self is ‘ seven days’ travel’.’’ Al­though some opin­ions were un­doubt­edly gen­uine and in­tended to be help­ful, the sus­pi­cion arises on oc­ca­sion that some Abo­rig­ines were ‘‘ tak­ing the piss’’ out of the white men.

As Lewis points out, ‘‘ Yet in spite of all the ex­pe­di­tions, the many relics found, the marked trees, the Abo­rig­i­nal sto­ries and scores of the­o­ries, Le­ich­hardt’s fi­nal rest­ing place and the man­ner of his death re­mains un­known.’’

Where is Dr Le­ich­hardt? con­cen­trates on the his­tory of the search. Le­ich­hardt him­self makes no ap­pear­ance, al­though it cov­ers much ret­ro­spec­tive spec­u­la­tion, some of it deroga­tory, about his char­ac­ter. Af­ter fin­ish­ing Lewis’s book, you hunger for more.

This is where Le­ich­hardt: Lost in the Out­back comes into play. It of­fers read­ers a chance to judge the ex­plorer for them­selves. Its fo­cus is Le­ich­hardt the man, his thoughts and feel­ings from boy­hood un­til he dis­ap­pears.

Hans Fin­ger, who is Ger­man, draws on a wide range of sources, in­clud­ing 1900 pages of pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished ma­te­rial, to give a fresh, three-di­men­sional pic­ture of the boy who was fa­ther to the man. Read­ing Fin­ger’s work, the de­scrip­tion ‘‘ sin­gle-minded’’ oc­curs as the most dom­i­nant fea­ture of Le­ich­hardt’s char­ac­ter. As he wrote to his fam­ily be­fore leav­ing Ger­many, ‘‘ There is some­thing in my na­ture that pushes me fur­ther and fur­ther.’’

From the ear­li­est age he had dreamed of great deeds that would re­veal ‘‘ an in­te­rior . . . veiled in dark­ness’’, which was both in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal. ‘‘ This in­te­rior, this cen­tre of dark mass is my goal and I will not give up un­til I reach it.’’

The Aus­tralian con­ti­nent came to em­body his quest and he set his heart on cross­ing it from east to west. He had failed once. It is clear from Fin­ger’s book that noth­ing would have deterred him again. If he en­coun­tered dif­fi­cul­ties in fol­low­ing his in­tended di­rec­tion, we can as­sume he would have found an al­ter­na­tive. Any­thing rather than turn back.

Lewis com­pre­hen­sively ful­fils his aim ‘‘ to doc­u­ment all the clues, re­li­able or oth­er­wise, so that the reader can fol­low the evolv­ing his­tory of the search for Le­ich­hardt and, if they wish, to de­velop their own an­swer to the great­est mys­tery in Aus­tralia’s his­tory — Which way did Le­ich­hardt go? Where did Le­ich­hardt die? How did he die?’’ Arm your­self with both books and put your am­a­teur de­tec­tive skills to the test.

Hav­ing as­sem­bled all the ev­i­dence for read­ers to as­sess, it is only in the clos­ing para­graphs that Lewis re­veals which route he thinks Le­ich­hardt took. You can match your wits against his. And I am not go­ing to spoil the fun.

Lud­wig Le­ich­hardt had dreamed of great deeds from an early age

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