Sparkling ac­count of large-scale fool’s er­rand

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon Cater­son Las­seter’s Gold By War­ren Brown Ha­chette, 352pp, $35 Si­mon Cater­son is the au­thor of Hoax Na­tion.

Of all the great Aus­tralian hoaxes, none is more darkly ab­surd than the leg­end of Las­seter’s Reef. In 1930, a prospec­tor call­ing him­self Harold Bell Las­seter ar­rived at the Syd­ney head­quar­ters of the Aus­tralian Work­ers Union claim­ing to have stum­bled on an enor­mous gold seam some­where near the MacDon­nell Ranges. Though Las­seter re­fused to di­vulge the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the reef, a well-fi­nanced ex­pe­di­tion was or­gan­ised by the AWU lead­er­ship.

In Las­seter’s Gold, War­ren Brown, The Daily Tele­graph car­toon­ist, TV pre­sen­ter and vintage mo­tor­ing buff (his pre­vi­ous book was a rol­lick­ing bi­og­ra­phy of ec­cen­tric out­back ad­ven­turer Fran­cis Bir­tles), has done a bril­liant job in piec­ing to­gether a co­her­ent and con­vinc­ing nar­ra­tive from the wel­ter of first-per­son ac­counts, some less re­li­able than oth­ers. He also draws on the of­ten puz­zling doc­u­men­tary record.

It seems al­most ev­ery­one who be­came in­volved in the search for Las­seter’s Reef had an agenda, and in­deed greed and para­noia flour­ished un­der the desert sun. Read­ing this ab­sorb­ing ac­count, I was re­minded of the clas­sic 1940s Humphrey Bog­art film The Trea­sure of Sierra Madre, in which a com­bi­na­tion of harsh en­vi­ron­ment, dis­trust and greed pro­duce ex­plo­sive con­flict among a mot­ley group of prospec­tors.

Las­seter’s Gold de­serves to be made into a fea­ture film and would make for an edgy out­back noir. It cer­tainly pro­vides an ex­cel­lent com­pan­ion piece to Luke Walker’s su­perb re­cent doc­u­men­tary Las­seter’s Bones, which con­cen­trates on the on­go­ing ef­forts by Las­seter’s 90-year-old son to find his fa­ther’s reef.

Given the sheer iso­la­tion, the phys­i­cal dif­fi­culty of mov­ing through the mulga coun­try, and Las­seter’s vague­ness about the lo­ca­tion of the gold, which meant the 1930 ex­pe­di­tion had no clear di­rec­tion to fol­low, it is a won­der the whole en­ter­prise did not dis­in­te­grate much ear­lier than it did.

As Brown notes, the story of Las­seter’s Reef has “many mov­ing parts”. Sev­eral key peo­ple in­volved in the ex­pe­di­tion seem to have been du­plic­i­tous if not down­right malev­o­lent in in­tent.

Brown leaves open the ques­tion that Las­seter was ly­ing about the ex­is­tence of a fab­u­lous reef of gold, and that he may have been mur­dered by Paul Johns, a some­what sin­is­ter Ger­man bush­man later de­ported from Aus­tralia and in­terned in Bri­tain dur­ing World War II as a Nazi sym­pa­thiser.

Las­seter, a man with a murky past as a petty crim­i­nal, con man and po­lyg­a­mist, was quite pos­si­bly ly­ing or de­luded. At the bit­ter end he may have been left de­lib­er­ately by Johns to die in a desert cave, or per­haps he faked his own death and fled over­seas.

In any case, no of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the ill­fated ex­pe­di­tion to find the reef was ever car­ried out, ap­par­ently be­cause it would have re­vealed the sheer in­ep­ti­tude and de­cep­tive con­duct at the heart of the doomed en­ter­prise.

There have been many ac­counts of the 1930 un­der­tak­ing, and the many sub­se­quent searches for the gold, but few if any of these nar­ra­tives are as grounded, in a quite lit­eral sense, as Las­seter’s Gold. The au­thor, who is an ex­pert in vintage ma­chin­ery and star of sev­eral tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries on mo­tor­ing, fo­cuses on the hard­ware the searchers used and the con­di­tions they faced.

The main ve­hi­cle used to tra­verse the treach­er­ous mulga coun­try and shift­ing desert sands was a huge six-wheeled truck im­ported from Eng­land. The gi­ant Thorny­croft was touted as a state-of-the-art all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle. Among the other im­pres­sive equip­ment was a “por­ta­ble” ra­dio trans­mit­ter — three peo­ple were re­quired to lift it — that was thought to be ca­pa­ble of send­ing mes­sages from the most re­mote lo­ca­tion. The ex­pe­di­tion also had aerial sup­port in the form of a bi­plane.

As things turned out, the Thorny­croft was a fire haz­ard as well as be­ing dif­fi­cult to han­dle, the ra­dio sim­ply didn’t work and the aero­plane tended to crash on land­ing. The mind-numb­ingly slow progress made by the ex­pe­di­tion party could be likened to a tanker con­voy se­quence from a Mad Max film viewed in ex­treme slow mo­tion.

The jour­ney to find the reef, which was con­ducted un­der the aus­pices of the grandly named Cen­tral Aus­tralia Gold Ex­plo­ration Com­pany, proved to be a folly as big as that of Burke and Wills, though with­out the heroic di­men­sion.

Fea­tur­ing the au­thor’s own il­lus­tra­tions as well as a re­mark­able set of archival photos, Las­seter’s Gold is a com­pelling ac­count of the weird out­back ad­ven­ture that was the un­suc­cess­ful orig­i­nal search to lo­cate the Aus­tralian El Do­rado.

Harold Bell Las­seter (front) with his ex­plor­ing party in cen­tral Aus­tralia

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