In the history of human exploration of our planet, the expeditions that seem to draw our morbid attention the most and generate the most fascination and discussion are the ones that never came back. These were the brave souls who ventured forth past the edges of our known world into the uncertainty and wonder of what lies beyond, only to vanish without a trace, as if that great unknown they desired to tame took it upon itself to swallow them up and erase them from existence. One of the most perplexing and debated such lost expeditions concerns an eminent naturalist and explorer who fearlessly penetrated into the bleak interior of Australia in a time when it was one of the most poorly understood and uncharted places on the planet, only to mysteriously disappear and leave behind a legacy of both spectacular achievement and of a puzzling enigma. It is a baffling lost expedition that has gone on to become one of the most enduring mysteries of exploration in Australia, if not the world. This is the case of the lost expedition of Ludwig Leichhardt.
Ludwig Leichhardt was a German-born scientist and naturalist who studied a wide range of areas including philosophy, language, medicine, geology, physiology, and natural sciences at the Universities of Göttingen and Berlin from the years of 1831 and 1836, before going on to study in England in 1837. He was very proficient in languages especially, mastering a total of six foreign languages during this time. Although despite all of these studies he never did earn a full degree, instead opting to pursue knowledge for its own sake, Leichhardt nevertheless gained a venerable reputation as being an impeccable scientist, and undertook a good amount of field work in several countries such as France, Italy and Switzerland. Due to this reputation, it became common practice among his respectful contemporaries to address Leichhardt as “Doctor” in order to recognize his contributions, despite his lack of any official academic credentials. Yet for all of this, it would be his work in Australia that would truly mark his legacy and cement his place in the annals of history as well as the unexplained.
Leichhardt arrived in Sydney on 14 February 1842, hoping to explore the interior of Australia and catalogue the flora and fauna of the region, as well as draw up maps and study the language of the indigenous Aboriginal people. He would spend some time in the Hunter River valley studying up on the region’s plant and animal life, as well as different farming methods particular to the area before going off on a specimen collecting expedition that took him all over the country from Newcastle, New South Wales, to Moreton Bay in Queensland. During this time, Leichhardt became well-known for his meticulous, carefully bound field notes and attention to detail, and gained a reputation for being an astute observer of nature and the native Aboriginal people, but this German naturalist was set to also become one of the most daring and important explorers in Australian history.
In 1844, Leichhardt set his sights on a government sponsored expedition that was to journey from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, lying 300km north of Darwin in the Northern Territories, which was a daunting total distance of 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) over rough, largely unmapped terrain. This proposed expedition eventually fell through, but Leichhardt was not about to let that stop him. He became rather obsessed with the idea of making the perilous journey on his own, and to this end he gathered together some companions and set off on horseback into the wilds, on the cheap and with no official funding whatsoever. It was perhaps a poorly though through plan, but during this trek he would successfully lead his expedition through harsh wilderness even after they ran out of food 7 months in, and he would even lead them several hundred meters down a harrowing escarpment north of a place called Jim Jim Falls, in what is now Kakadu National Park, which was a feat so impressive that even today no one seems to know how it was done. The group would also survive the dangers of poisonous wildlife, the relentless pounding heat, unpredictable terrain, and a deadly attack by Aborigines, which claimed the life of the team’s ornithologist, John Gilbert, and wounded two others.
The route they had taken was considered to be so hostile, unforgiving, and impassable that when the expedition rode into Sydney in March of 1846, half-starved, exhausted, and minus one expedition member, they had long been given up for dead and it was considered an amazing feat that the ragtag, underfunded team had actually made it. Since this was one of the longest overland explorations ever attempted and the first time a white man had ever crossed so much of North Queensland, it was all rather impressive. Add to this that Leichhardt’s extensive notes of the journey were some of the best maps and most extensive and detailed information on the wildlife, vegetation, geology, and Aboriginal people of Australia ever gathered up to that point, and it becomes easy to see why he gained much respect and was soon being hailed as the “Prince of Explorers.”
In light of this astounding achievement and all of the acclaim it generated, Leichhardt soon garnered the support of those willing to fund further expeditions. In 1847, he set out on his second major expedition, this time with the help of a government grant and private funding and better equipped than the first time around. His goal on this next mission was to journey from the rolling hills of the farming region of Darling Downs, in southern Queensland, all the way over to the Swan River and Perth on the west coast. The expedition launched in December of 1846 with high hopes that they would have yet another success and that things would go more smoothly this time around in light of their increased preparedness and supplies. They didn’t. As the expedition traversed the desolate landscape, they were plagued by numerous problems, including foul weather in the form of torrential rains, disease, the death of some of their horses and cattle, and famine, as well as dissent and persistent internal fighting among the bedraggled expedition members. Leichhardt himself contracted malaria and his health rapidly deteriorated. Due to these unfortunate problems, the team was forced to turn back after travelling around 800km, a fraction of the distance they had planned to cover.
Although this second expedition was a total failure, Leichhardt still retained his prominent standing as a skilled, daring explorer, and his successful first expedition still garnered him a lot of goodwill. In fact, in 1847, the very same year as his failed expedition, he was awarded the Patron’s Medal from the Royal Geographical Society and the prize for the most important geographic discovery from the Paris Geographical Society for his achievements in documenting the land, flora, fauna, and native people of Australia. With his confidence still high, Leichhardt went about organizing a third expedition to try again, with the aim of travelling from the Condamine River, in Darling Downs, to reach the Swan River. This time the expedition would go out with the intent of crossing directly through the uncharted arid badlands of Australia’s center to cross the entire continent right through its middle, which at the time was mostly unmapped and so remote it might as well have been another planet. It was a feat never before attempted by Europeans, yet there were high hopes that with Leichhardt’s expertise and experience they would succeed. In April of 1848, Leichhardt departed on his ambitious journey along with an entourage of five European companions, two Aboriginal guides, seven horses, 20 mules, a whopping 50 head of steer, and a huge baggage train full of supplies and equipment. They were certainly well prepared. On April 3, the team was seen at McPherson’s Station, Coogoon, on the Darling Downs, preparing to venture out into the vast, forbidding interior of Australia on their quest. At this point things seemed to be going smoothly, and the team headed out into the outback without any indication of trouble. They would never be seen again.
It took some time before anyone began to suspect something was amiss. After all, the expedition had stated that the journey was planned to take 2 or even up to 3 years, so it was not until 1851 rolled around with no contact from them that people became concerned. As soon as it started to dawn on people that the expedition was not coming back, there began a series of expeditions into the desolate interior to try and find out what had happened to them. After a cursory search in 1851, in 1852 the government of New South Wales funded a search party led by the Australian explorer and politician Hovenden Hely. This search expedition was able to uncover an enigmatic clue when they found a tree within an abandoned campsite in which an “L” had been carved over the letters “XVA,” but no other evidence of the lost expedition was turned up. It was common practice for explorers of the time to carve their initials into trees to mark their path, so the finding was considered to be important although the meaning of “XVA” was not apparent. Interestingly, the letter “L” would show up on later search expeditions as well. In 1858, the esteemed English-born explorer Sir Augustus Charles Gregory launched an expedition which, while not able to find any other trace of Leichhardt, nevertheless found several trees with the letter “L” carved into them. An 1864 expedition led by explorer Duncan McIntyre also uncovered two trees marked with an “L” near the Flinders River. Sightings of the “L” marked trees would end up popping up all over the place, in wildly different locales, which would add to the confusion.
In some cases, expeditions were launched to follow up on potentially more exciting leads that came in concerning the fate of the Leichhardt party. For instance, in 1869, there was a persistent rumor that the remains of men and horses killed by Aborigines had been found lying out in the open. In order to investigate these claims, the Government of Western Australia organized an expedition led by the explorer John Forrest, but they were unable to find any trace of the purported remains, nor indeed any sign that anyone had been there at all. There were also several instances of campsites being found that were thought to have been used by the Leichhardt expedition, or tracks made by the party. Such potentially groundbreaking tidbits of information became regular features in the media, and with the mystery of the disappearance so heavily in the public consciousness the whole story became so sensationalized that it became hard to discern what information was real and what was pure speculation or misinformation. Potential real leads began to mix with wild stories or second or third hand accounts that were most probably half-fiction at best and more likely pure nonsense, making quality information hard to come by.
Over the years at least 14 major expeditions would be launched to search for clues to the disappearance of the Leichhardt party, and there would even be a large £1000 reward offered by The Bulletin magazine in 1880 for any solid information leading to solving the case, yet no one was able to come to any concrete answers or collect the reward. Throughout these search efforts, a few possible tantalizing clues were found over the years. In addition to the “L” marked trees, there were also the occasional bones of steer found where there should have been none, tracks, cooking implements and cutlery at campsites, pieces of iron, or tent pegs, as well as numerous accounts from Aborigines with tales of a group of white men drowning, dying of thirst, starving, being massacred, or otherwise perishing out in the wilderness. Many of these stories came with claims that the skeletons of the men and their abandoned supplies could be found out in the barren landscape. In 1896, during an expedition through the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts undertaken by David Carnegie, the explorer met some aborigines who showed him the lid of a tin matchbox and an iron piece of a saddle which they claimed had come from a group of white men who had passed through many years before and who Carnegie speculated could have been Leichhardt’s group. Another Aboriginal tale from 1889 told of a group of four white men and two Aboriginal guides who had died around 300 km south-east of Joanna Spring after desperately searching the parched landscape for water. There were also persistent sightings by both Aborigines and settlers alike of an old white man allegedly living out in the desert who could have been Leichhardt.
Ultimately, none of these potential clues amounted to much. The “L” marked trees are ultimately not very helpful, as it is impossible to distinguish which of the markings could have actually been from Leichhardt and which were not. Additionally, there was another explorer operating in the region at the time by the name of Landsborough, whose own “L”s could have been confused with Leichhardt’s. In fact, anyone in the area with a name staring with “L” could have possibly made the marks. There is also the possibility that someone was playing a prank, that the same trees were seen twice, further causing confusion, or that some of the marked trees that were allegedly seen could have been destroyed in a fire or similarly lost. Steer bones and tracks don’t mean much as there is no way to tell where they actually came from. Even more tangible evidence such as cooking utensils and such are also equally useless for the same reason. The arid conditions also had a way of making it difficult to say just how old such evidence was. Additionally, crews working on The Overland Telegraph line, which stretched from Darwin to Port Augusta in South Australia, camped out in the desert and left behind various such artifacts and refuse, as well as tracks from horses or livestock, which further muddied the waters. The tales told by Aborigines were also unreliable, with conflicting reports or references to seemingly fictitious places, and it is mostly thought that whatever true reports there might have been are mixed up with a healthy dose of those who were just messing with the white man. Such stories could not be verified, their veracity was in doubt, and so they are mostly considered to be untrustworthy. None of this supposed evidence provides any concrete answers, and in many cases just serves to make the whole thing more confusing.
One of the weirder pieces of evidence was the 1975 discovery of Aboriginal cave paintings in the Kakadu area and in Arnhem Land by a ranger named Zac Mathias. The cave paintings depict what appear to be images of white men. One of the men seems to be wearing a tie and holding aloft a rifle as if it were a spear, and the other appears to be wearing a broad-brimmed hat and riding on a horse that is urinating. While these paintings are certainly bizarre, it is difficult to ascertain if the men in the paintings have anything to do with Leichhardt or his group. With no way of knowing if these odd cave paintings have any significance in the case, they can only really be considered a curiosity.
Perhaps the most promising piece of evidence ever found was the discovery of a small brass plate measuring (15 cm x 2 cm) on which was inscribed “LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848” and which was attached to a burnt shotgun, possibly damaged in a fire. The plate was discovered stuffed into a boab tree carved with the letter “L” somewhere near Sturt Creek, on the northern fringe of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, in 1900 by an Aboriginal stockman, who gave it to his boss, Charles Harding. The plate remained hidden from the world for years and would not be properly authenticated until 2006, when the National Museum of Australia in Canberra conducted an analysis on it which proved that the metal was indeed from the 1800s, that the residue on the gun was from gunpowder of the era, and that it had been out in the arid weather for a long enough time to have been from Leichhardt. This discovery is significant in that its location seems to suggest that Leichhardt did not in fact head straight through the Australian interior, but rather followed a path that took him in a northern arc along the headways of rivers. It also provides a yardstick for how far along they were, with the location of the plate suggesting that they were at least two thirds through their journey. Nevertheless, despite being the best and most tangible piece of evidence linked to the lost expedition, and its location potentially shows the route they took and how far they’d gone, the oral description of where the plate was originally found is considered to be too vague to be of much help, and efforts to locate the tree have failed. It also still does not answer the question of what actually happened to the expedition.
In light of all of the puzzles surrounding the mystery, speculation on the expedition’s fate has swirled. Some have said that the team had simply died out in the desert after running out of supplies or succumbing to thirst or the elements, while others hold that they were murdered by Aborigines, turned on themselves, or drowned while traversing a river. One letter found by a librarian at NSW State Library, which was dated April 2, 1874 and written by a cattle station owner named W.P. Gordon, outlined the group’s gruesome fate at the hands of a murderous gang of Aborigines at Wallumbilla. This letter has caused further speculation that the expedition’s equipment might have been traded and ended up all over the place, making the location of any found artifacts unreliable for the purposes of pinpointing where the group was at the time. In other theories, it is said that Leichhardt didn’t die at all, instead abandoning civilization to live out his days among the Aborigines deep in the outback. Some more far out theories have even suggested that he had found some secret lost city out in the wilderness and had chosen to remain there amongst its splendor. One particularly controversial theory proposed by a lecturer at Charles Darwin University by the name of Dan Baschiera is that Leichhardt was assassinated by the British Colonial Government by way of a bag of poisoned flour because it was considered an embarrassment to have a German explorer conquering the exploration of Australia.
Yet for all of this speculation, there is not much to support any one theory over another. There are those who think that some sort of insight can still be gleaned by the name plate via the extraction of minute organic material embedded within it, but so far this has not happened. In the end, for all of the theories and speculation, for all of the numerous books, papers and reports that have been extensively written on the subject, the mystery of what happened to the lost Leichhardt expedition and indeed which route they took remains unresolved, and until more solid evidence comes along it is likely to remain that way. Dr. Darrell Lewis, an archaeologist, historian and bushman who spent years combing the outback for clues and wrote the very in-depth book on the subject, Where is Dr Leichhardt? , the answers will probably remain murky for the time being. Lewis said:
Ultimately no answer can yet prove which route the expedition took or where or how it met its end. Until the time that some conclusive piece of evidence is discovered – something like Leichhardt’s journals hidden in a dry cave or perhaps a heap of 1840s-period surveying gear – arguments about Leichhardt’s final resting place will remain a matter of probabilities rather than certainties.
As to where such evidence might be found, expert opinion seems to be divided on this, mostly pointing to either the Simpson Desert, which is the world’s largest sand dune desert, or the Great Sandy Desert, a vast expanse of sparsely populated wasteland which encompasses 284,993 square kilometers (110,036 sq. mi) of northwest Western Australia. It is here in these inhospitable regions where the answers to the mystery are seen to most likely to lie hidden away, out where no one dares to tread and where the only witnesses to the expedition’s fate are the hardy wildlife that clings to existence in this sun scorched moonscape. In a place like this, someone could easily disappear and never be found again. Dr. Darrell Lewis is one who thinks that the answer lies in the Great Sandy Desert, and has given his thoughts on this as well, saying:
It’s become entrenched that the Simpson Desert is the most likely place, but the Simpson Desert is the Piccadilly Circus of Australian deserts – it’s got scientists; it’s got tourists; it’s got lots of people. This country out here [the northern Gibson and the northern Great Sandy deserts] is the least explored part of the country – it has to be out in the desert. If they’d drowned, some of their stuff would have washed away and then been uncovered later on. And some of them would have survived.
Will we ever solve the riddle of what happened to the Leichhardt expedition? For now there are mostly just questions without answers. Although in later years his surveying work has been criticized as inaccurate and his maps unreliable, Leichhardt is nevertheless seen as being one of the best trained naturalists to explore Australia at the time and one of the most important and esteemed explorers in the history of the continent. Ludwig Leichhardt’s historical importance can be seen today in the numerous locations throughout Australia which bear his name. It seems to be a shame that this legacy is cast within the shadow of the mystery hanging over his final days. Perhaps one day, some intrepid researcher or explorer will finally come across the answer to this mystery lying far out in the wilds of Australia, where Leichhardt has rested for well over a century in seclusion. Until then, it will remain an enigmatic end to one of the most famous people in Australian history, and one of the country’s great unsolved mysteries.