There is a certain irresistible quality to stories of lost treasures, an allure that captivates us and draws us. The idea that vast, untold riches lie out there just waiting to be found by someone is intoxicating, and captures the imagination. Tales of lost treasure come from all corners of the globe, and never cease to enthrall. One of the most famous stories of lost treasure in Australia is the story of one man who claimed to have found a vast reserve of gold out in the desolate wasteland of the Australian Outback, the search for which would end up playing like something from an Indiana Jones movie and would eventually lead to his death; a tale that would go on to become the stuff of legend.
The story begins in Australia in 1897, when a miner and prospector by the name of Harold Lasseter was prospecting for rubies in the MacDonnell Ranges, west of Alice Springs. During his excusion, Lasseter got lost while en route to the city of Carnarvon on the Western Australian coast, through perilous desert outback wilderness. As he made his way through the harsh wasteland, Lasseter reportedly accidentally stumbled across a vast vein of gold-laced quartz that he estimated as being around 7 miles long, four to seven feet high, and 12 feet wide, holding incalculable riches. He was unequipped to do anything with the find, but took a few samples of the gold, made a mental note, and continued on his journey. Lasseter became increasingly delirious from thirst and the heat, his horse died, and he was on his last legs when he claimed an Afghan camel driver took him to a surveyor camp where they nursed him back to health.
With the immense reef of gold steadily on his mind, Lasseter made preparations for another expedition to search for the location he had found. Some three years later, Lasseter went off once again into the outback, this time with a fellow prospector by the name of Harding, whose camp had saved him when he had been dying in the outback. It was a rather underfunded affair, mostly just the two of them seeing if they could find it again, and after setting off into the desert they amazingly were able to once again locate the treasure trove of gold, after which they took bearings with their watches and returned back to town with some samples. Unfortunately, it turned out that their watches had not been working properly, so once again the location of the gold was elusive, and merely based on what Lasseter could remember.
Lasseter would subsequently be caught up in other prospecting pursuits; after all, this was the era of the Australian gold rush, when the seemingly endless reserves of gold popping up everywhere were driving the economy of this young nation. The lost vein of gold he found ever occupied his mind, though, and Lasseter looked for funding for further expeditions at every possible opportunity, but no one at the time was willing to risk a trek into such unexplored, forbidding terrain.
In 1929, Lasseter approached the Australian government telling them of the discovery he had made and pleaded for funding to launch a survey mission, but he was denied and the government made no efforts to follow up on his claims. Eventually, in 1930, Lasseter would find someone willing to listen to him in the form of John Bailey, who was President of the Australian Workers Union. By this time, Australia was in the midst of its Great Depression, and so the lure of more gold out in the wilds was more attractive than it had ever been before. Bailey came to the conclusion that Lasseter’s claims could have some merit, and so used his considerable political and economical clout to put together an expedition to venture out into the Australian Outback in an effort to locate Lasseter’s gold reef. The 1930 expedition in search of Lasseter’s gold started off well enough. They were well-funded, well-equipped, and had in their possession two trucks and an aircraft, as well as experienced prospectors and bushmen. All things told, it was the most well-equipped exploration expedition Australia had ever seen. The expedition set out on 21 July 1930, not knowing that they were headed for disaster.
The original intent was to first find an area where a landing strip could be set up and that could be used as a staging area for further penetration into the wilderness. At Taylor's Creek, around 240 miles west of Alice Springs, a good spot was found and an airstrip quickly constructed, after which the pilot returned in one of the trucks to Alice Springs in order to retrieve the waiting aircraft and bring in more supplies. When the aircraft arrived, the expedition continued its push further west into increasingly perilous terrain, where it was hoped yet another staging area could eventually be set up. By this time, progress in the rugged landscape was becoming exceedingly slow, around 2 miles per hour even with vehicles, but nevertheless the team was able to find a suitable location and build yet another airstrip at a place called Ilbilba. However, when the aircraft lifted off on its way to the new staging area, it suddenly experienced technical difficulties and crashed into the ground, severely injuring the pilot, who had to be brought back to Alice Springs for medical attention. The expedition would continue on without air support from this point on until it could be repaired.
Despite the unfortunate mishap, the expedition slogged west, where it was hoped that Lasseter would be able to recreate from memory the location of the priceless gold stores. It soon became evident that the trucks used by the expedition were woefully inefficient in the conditions they were facing. Large sand dunes blocked progress at every turn, as well as various treacherous gullies, ravines and canyons. Many of the obstacles such as sand dunes, scrub brush, and boulders had to be removed by hand, they were forced to backtrack and find alternative routes around insurmountable obstacles, and the team made overall very slow progress.
This continued until the expedition was faced with terrain that was no longer possible to navigate with their vehicles. The frustrated team was forced to turn around and head back to Ilbilba to wait for further instructions on what to do next. Lasseter went out on the aircraft to scout for any landmarks he may recognize, but the plane had such a limited range that it was nearly useless for covering such a large area and so it was sent off to Adelaide to be refitted with larger fuel tanks and a larger engine. Lasseter claimed to have seen some landmarks he recognized from a distance aboard the aircraft, but by this time many in the group were beginning to have doubts about whether Lasseter had any idea of what he was doing. He had still not provided any solid information on where the gold might be, and the whole operation was starting to take on the feel of just blindly stumbling around the Outback hoping to find a needle in the haystack. The expedition members were understandably skeptical about whether Lasseter had ever even seen any gold at all.
Nevertheless, Lasseter was fervently convinced that the gold was out there and ready to trek out overland towards the landmarks he thought he had seen at all costs. Considering that the terrain was impassable with vehicles, the company sent help in the form of a team of camels, along with a guide and hunter by the name of Paul Johns. The team set out overland with the camels, but the aircraft that was planned to be sent for aerial support had technical difficulties again and remained grounded.
As the team of camels continued on their trek, they began to enter territory that Lasseter claimed he recognized, and he told them they were getting close to the prize. Lasseter told the expedition to set up camp while he scouted ahead on his own to see if he could get a better pinpoint on the position of the gold. While he was out there, Lasseter allegedly once again found the enormous reef of gold, and he excitedly went back to camp to tell the others. The guide, Johns, was very suspicious of the claim, and was by now under the impression that Lasseter was a raving lunatic, a charlatan, and a liar, and a conman. Things became tense between the two and, when Johns accused him of hiding gold samples in his pockets, they had heated words with each other, with Johns allegedly pulling a pistol on Lasseter and threatening to kill him at one point.
It was under this tense air of animosity that the expedition headed back to their main camp at Ilbilba to tell the others so that they could mount another expedition to go mine the gold. At this point, no one else had even laid eyes on it yet except Lasseter, and the team were all highly skeptical. Even the leader of the expedition, Frank Blakeley, had had enough and was ready to call off the whole thing. When they got back to the main camp, Lasseter got together two camels and some special equipment and prepared to go back out into the desert with the intention of staking a claim on the site, marking its location, and bringing back some samples of the gold, despite the fact that no one else wanted any more to do with the man. He swore that he would successfully stake a claim on the gold and once again trudged out into the desert wilderness alone with the two camels. While out on his own, Lasseter was beset by disaster. One afternoon, both of his camels suddenly bolted, along with all of his supplies, and Lasseter was left there in the middle of the outback wilderness with no food or water. He nevertheless set out on foot once again, with no supplies, through the arid terrain, hellbent on reaching his gold no matter what. Along the way, Aborigines reportedly aided him with meager supplies of food and water, but he was mostly completely alone and fast losing strength.
This is where Lasseter’s ultimate fate becomes murky. When Lasseter failed to show up for several weeks, a rescue mission was launched to find him, led by an experienced bushman by the name of Bob Buck. For 11 weeks the search party scoured the Outback for any sign of Lasseter, and finally came across some Aborigines who claimed that they had indeed seen a lone white man staggering through the desert some weeks before and that he had died. The Aborigines took Buck to where Lasseter had finally collapsed and sure enough there were the desiccated remains of the prospector lying face down on the parched earth. Buck searched the body for any signs of a note, message, or samples he may have retrieved from the gold reef, but there were none. Lasseter’s body was buried in a shallow grave where it lay and Buck headed back to civilization. Later, some of Lasseter’s belongings, including a diary he had kept that described his ordeal, were found in a cave at a place called Hull’s Creek. In one of the last entries in the diary he laments:
What good a [gold] reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread.
Although the diary mentions burying a sample of the gold in the desert, no word on its location, nor any map to where the reef could be, were found among these belongings. The diary does mention burying a map to the gold in his kit bag near where the camels bolted, which was eventually found and dug up 17 years later, but by that time it had disintegrated to pieces. It was later rumored that Lasseter had given a copy of the map to his wife but it was never proven. The location of the gold, and indeed if it ever existed at all, remained a mystery.
In the years since Lasseter’s death, the story of his gold reef has attained an almost legendary status. No map has ever been found, and no gold has ever been located even remotely near where Lasseter’s expedition had been searching, around 700 miles (1,100 km) west of Alice Springs. The only clues to where it might be are cryptic descriptions of nearby landmarks in the diary, such as three hills that “look like women in sunbonnets talking to each other” and another that resembles “a Quaker’s hat”. There are many who see the whole story as merely a legend or an old prospector’s story; just one more mysterious tale of lost gold. However, this has not stopped treasure hunters from attempting to find it, and “Lasseter’s Reef” has become somewhat of a Holy Grail for prospectors from all over the world. On occasion, there are even those who have claimed to have found it.
Darwin businessman Lutz Frankenfeld claimed that he found the location of the gold and had plans to mine the area after petitioning the Central Land Council for permission since 1994. After holding an exploration lease to mine the land, he said he is in negotiations with a mining company to develop the site and mine it. Frankenfeld claimed that he had located the reef through careful study of Lasseter’s diary and accounts of his last, deadly expedition to find the gold. He claimed that the site was 500 km west of Alice Springs, on the border of Western Australia and was now covered with sand due to flooding. Whether the gold has really been found or not remains to be seen.
Many historians, including Darwin historian Peter Forrest, are convinced that Lasseter made up the whole story and that no such gold reef exists, but there are others who disagree. One of those that believe the gold reef is very real is Lasseter’s own son, Bob Lasseter, who is now 87 and was 6 years old when his father died out in the desert. Bob now lives in Sydney, where he works as an engineer and inventor and has spent most of his free time over most of his adult life searching for his father's lost gold. Bob has made several expeditions into the desert, along with his friend Luke Walker, an author and amateur filmmaker who has written about Lasseter’s story and sunk most of his life savings into making a film on Lasseter’s life titled Lasseter’s Bones. The two set out into the desert as recently as 2010 using an alleged map cobbled together from clues in Lasseter's diary entries, but were forced to turn back due to rough terrain, yet they plan to return. Bob Lasseter claims that his purpose is not only to strike it rich but to also clear his father’s name, who was blasted as being a nut job, a liar, and a charlatan by the media of the day. Bob Lasseter is getting on in years and his days of prospecting are coming to an end, but he said:
I would like somebody to find that reef and reveal its position. I feel quite sure that that reef has got to be there somewhere.
For now, the location to the gold remains just as mysterious as ever, and will likely remain that way. With no way of knowing where it is, so few clues, and such vast swaths of outback to cover, looking for the gold is a tremendous challenge. There is also the further obstacle that much of the land lays within traditional Aboriginal territory, which requires loads of paperwork and special permits for prospecting. There is additionally the very real possibility that it never existed at all. However, the lure of lost treasure in the wild places of the world is powerful, and there will likely be those who continue to look for the gold well into the future. Until it is found, the story of Lasseter’s Reef will remain one of the great legends of the Australian Outback.