Lewis exercises a healthy scholarly caution in his writing, but is by and large gentle on tales which, with 21st century insight and hindsight, fail to make the cut. Typical is the stray mule which appears early in part two and which caused a frisson of excitement during 1889-91 after its discovery near the Great Australian Bight. After delicately dissecting and discounting the provenance of said pack animal, Lewis concludes: “In spite of the Australia-wide publicity ... no one recognised [its] brand and, true to form, the mule remained stubbornly silent.”

The author is equally kind to the contemporary contexts of his speakers. Reporting Thomas Milne’s 90-word, eight-line diatribe from 1922 about Leichhardt’s ‘Prussian megalomania’ and other shortcomings, failings and failures, Lewis wryly concludes: “One can only speculate that Milne had experienced a hard time during the First World War.”

Above all, the great mystery of Leichhardt is a human story as much as a geographical one, and Lewis engagingly brings to life “an amazing cast of characters: ‘wild’ Aborigines, explorers, bushrangers, frontier squatters, prospectors, aristocrats, charlatans, clairvoyants, madmen, scientists, historians, ‘armchair experts’ and others.” The human toll extended beyond the six, possibly seven, members of Leichhardt’s final complement, with lives lost in fruitless searches for him. Lewis maintains a running tally of deaths incurred, with no less than eight by page 114 – all in part one – although the ninth and last ‘official’ search fatality does not appear until page 309 in part two.

Lewis facilitates a fresh overview of the many Aboriginal tales of outback deaths and massacres, passed on through tribes, districts and generations, and often embellished by fear, distance and simple re-telling.  Each is as meticulously framed and cross-referenced as the other reports, and the reader comes to appreciate some of the challenges of Aboriginal languages (both verbal and visual) and dialects, and their transcription and reporting. Explorer John Forrest, among those enlisted to search for Leichhardt, returned empty-handed to Swan River (Perth) only to discover that he and his party had themselves been reported with certainty as having been massacred by the Aborigines!

We may feel an involuntary squirm as we read how often that, following a ‘find’ or clue of rare provenance, circumstances conspired to prevent a further visit – lack of funds, resources or credibility, tribal feuds, even a world war. On the excruciatingly rare occasions such follow-up was made, the investigation disappeared also, unresolved and unreported, from the pages of the press and the public eye. Lewis dutifully records such open endings and moves on without judgement, although the historian in him does lament some lost opportunities of unusual and particular potential.

The proliferation of station, place and waterway names (especially given their varied spellings and reporting) could have been the death of flow and readability, but Lewis displays a nice touch orientating the reader. His words are reinforced by well-placed maps of the Australian National University’s Clive Hilliker, which clearly relate discoveries and travels to the narrative.

Hilliker’s economically-drawn maps are valuable, but are confined to key watercourses, tracks, place names and relevant finds in the adjacent text. The bare background of the maps ensures clarity of data, but lack of further indication of terrain, ground cover or landscape leaves the reader’s feeling for the countryside dependent on Lewis’s words. In light of the subject matter, perhaps the framed emptiness was deliberate.

An unfortunate error mars the second map, in the book’s earliest pages (xxiii). Setting the scene for the structure to come, Hilliker shows us the two broadly possible paths across Australia: northabout and straight across. The shaded areas showing the approximate extent of European settlement in 1848 are let down by the use of the term ‘Moreton Bay’ and by its placement adjacent to Fraser Island. (Hilliker’s map is precise enough to clearly show Moreton and Stradbroke Islands well to the south of that label.) The use of the colonial term may have been intended to assist the reader, but ‘Brisbane Town’ was in widespread use by 1839, popularly contracted to ‘Brisbane’ by Governor Gipps’ declaration of free settlement in the area in 1842.

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