Spinifex and Sand/Part V/Chapter IX
Part V: The Outward Journey
Chapter IX: Dr. Leichardt's Lost Expedition
At this point I must ask pardon of the courteous reader for a seeming digression, and interpolate a short account of Dr. Leichardt's lost expedition — as to the fate of which nothing is known; and although no apparent connection exists between it and this narrative, it may be that in our journey we have happened on traces, and that the pieces of iron mentioned in the last chapter may serve as some clue to its fate. On arrival in civilisation I sent these iron relics, with some native curios, to Mr. Panton, Police Magistrate, of Melbourne, Victoria, a gentleman whose knowledge, and ability to speak with authority on matters concerning Australian exploration is recognised as the highest.
When, therefore, Mr. Panton expresses the opinion that the tent-peg was the property of Dr. Leichardt, one may be sure that he has good grounds for his supposition. Whether Leichardt lost his life in the heart of this wilderness or not, the complete mystery hiding his fate makes his history sufficiently remarkable; and though I consider that there is little to show that he ever reached a point so far across the continent, there is no reason that he should not have done so, and I leave it for my readers to form their own opinion.
Ludwig Leichardt, after carrying out successfully several journeys in Queensland and the Northern Territory, undertook the gigantic task of crossing Australia from East to West, viz., from Moreton Bay to the Swan River Settlements.
Towards the end of 1847, accompanied by eight white men, two black-boys, and provisions to last two years, he started, taking with him one hundred and eighty sheep, two hundred and seventy goats, forty bullocks, fifteen horses, and thirty mules. After travelling with little or no progress for seven months, during which time the whole stock of cattle and sheep were lost, the party returned. Not discouraged by this disastrous termination to his scheme, Leichardt resolved on another expedition with the same object in view.
Before many months he, with the same number of companions but with fewer animals, set out again. On the 3rd of April, 1848, he wrote from Fitzroy Downs, expressing hope and confidence as to the ultimate success of the expedition. Since that date, neither tidings nor traces have been found of the lost explorer, nor of any of his men or belongings. Several search-parties were organised and a large reward offered, but all in vain — and the scene of his disaster remains undiscovered to this day. Many and various are the theories propounded with regard to his fate. It is held by some that the whole party were caught in the floods of the Cooper. This creek is now known to spread out, after heavy rains at its source, to a width of between forty and fifty miles. So heavy and sudden is the rain in semi-tropical Australia, that a traveller may be surrounded by flood-waters, while not a drop of local rain may fall. Leichardt, in those early days, would labour under the disadvantage of knowing neither the seasons, nor the rainfall, and in all likelihood would choose the valley of a creek to travel along, since it would afford feed for his stock. It seems reasonable to suppose that a flood alone could make so clean a sweep of men, cattle, and equipment that even keen-eyed aboriginals have failed (so far as is known) to discover any relics.
Another theory, and that held by Mr. Panton, is that the deserts of Central and Western Australia hold the secret of his death. This theory is based, I believe, on the fact that Gregory, in the fifties, found on the Elsey Creek (North Australia) what he supposed to be the camp of a white man. This in conjunction with some vague reports by natives would point to Leichardt having travelled for the first part of his journey considerably further north than was his original intention, with a view to making use of the northern rivers. Supposing that his was the camp seen on the Elsey, a tributary of the Victoria River, it would have been necessary for him to alter his course to nearly due South-West to enable him to reach the Swan River. This course would have taken him through the heart of the desert, through the very country we now were in. For my part I think that trade from tribe to tribe sufficiently accounts for the presence of such articles as tent-pegs and pieces of iron, though strangely enough an iron tent-peg is not commonly used nowadays, stakes of wood being as serviceable, and none but a large expedition would be burdened with the unnecessary weight of iron pegs.