Lewis cover 300  

This book is perhaps the most comprehensive, academic, and downright 'forensic' anthology to date. It examines both the searches for the missing explorer and the theories behind his possible routes and trail of 'evidence'.

The review below is by Matthew Tesch, who is rapidly acquiring a library of Leichhardt lore, knowledge, books, maps and other ephemera ~ as well as a keener appreciation of why we ought to retain a little mystery in our 21st century lives. 

Highly recommended reading: any links will direct you to the Monash University Publishing site to find out more, or to place your own order.

Set out over seven chapters, divided into two parts of three each and a concluding Discussion, Where is Dr Leichhardt? comprises 416 pages, the 1,372 footnotes of which reference 13 pages of Bibliography and sources. In addition, 20 maps help the reader avoid getting lost, and 78 b/w illustrations put faces to names and show key locations. A single appendix lists the known, and unconfirmed but likely, items of gear which accompanied the lost expedition, and the whole is rounded-off by a comprehensive Index.

Approaching the vast landscape and literature, Lewis establishes his case for collating identified “clusters” of Leichhardt finds or ‘evidence’ and separates these into two possible pathways. The three chapters of part one review the northern options, building on the 1844-45 Port Essington route: Central Queensland, the Gulf and Roper River region, and the Victoria River / Tanami Desert. The first two chapters of part two dissect the Simpson Desert, on the more direct east-to-west route, and the third chapter considers a possible Western Australian end of the saga.

Lewis leads the reader on a firmly constructed, cross-referenced and well-sequenced journey. He recounts details of the 15 or more formal efforts undertaken to search for traces of the missing party, and canvases the dozens of incidental encounters and discoveries of the past 160 years. He carefully describes successive expeditions and chance finds, testing and sifting reports and appraisals, showing what the historical ‘chaff’ is  and patiently explaining why this is so.

You might wonder if, in such strenuous efforts to be balanced and factual, Lewis requires a lot of qualifiers – ‘maybes’ and ‘perhapses’ and ‘possiblys’. This proves not to be so, and the pleasant, academically correct canter of the book’s rhythm reflects well on writer and editorial team.

The fog of much mystery is cleared by Lewis’s technique: for instance, the numerous trees identified or reported as inscribed with “L” (or other markings) are compared and contrasted. We see how some were indubitably Leichhardt’s, and that many other wanderers – both then and later – also had surnames beginning with that letter. Gideon Lang may have so marked in certain areas; the better-known William Landsborough very likely did, as he mapped his way around Queensland.

For the general reader the degree of forensic detective detail is illuminating, and Lewis conversationally and deftly explains why things are or are not – or might be – so. Dating fragments of teeth and tools, or revealing the minting dates and quantities of discovered coins, is only part of it. Weaponry through the years plays a key role: firearms, for instance, were originally loaded from the muzzle rather than the breech, although the older method persisted for a time after the technological transition. This has a bearing on items of reputed relevance – pistols and ammunition cartridges – as Lewis scrupulously demonstrates. His comparative reasoning and soundly-footnoted endorsements give the lie to many a popular myth long embedded in the Leichhardt legend.

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.

Somewhat unusual for such a formally-constructed work, there is no separate list of maps, and this reviewer would have found one a welcome reference point. Lewis handled the text side of his frequent reminders with skill, but references to subjects in earlier chapters provoked a lot of page-flipping – particularly in the less well-charted regions of part two.

A smaller quibble of the only two issues identified in the whole book. It was forgotten during the Discussion as Lewis began summarising the locations and probity of the various “L”-marked trees across Australia. I felt like cheering as a timely turn of the page revealed a well-captioned Hilliker map laying out exactly that ‘gods-eye view’ for detailed contemplation.

The path of the Discussion chapter certainly helps channel the reader’s focus. Old furphies have been discarded, and we are generally content with why. (Lewis observes that the 21st century tracks made by tour groups, ‘grey nomads’ in 4WDs, and resources companies have rendered the Simpson Desert the Outback equivalent of “Piccadilly Circus” and it is difficult to disagree.)

Emerging thoughtfully from the closing pages is a  short-list of locations and scenarios, to which Lewis contributes his own measured appraisal. An eleventh-hour reminder of Leichhardt’s profound admiration of the methodology of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt dazzled with the thrill of an unexpected towel-flick. The reader is set to thinking Lewis may indeed be pointing to the right area, and for the right reasons.

Overall, the feeling is that of an unexpectedly diverting fireside chat with one’s college professor. As an anthology of all the Leichhardt detective work which has gone before, this book has no peer. For those unfamiliar with this greatest of all Australian enigmas – or lacking experience of the vastness of her empty interior – it would be advantageous to have read beforehand at least John Bailey (if not Leichhardt himself) on the first ‘Overland Journey’ (1844-45). Bruce Simpson, another Leichhardt afficionado (and of whom Lewis makes mention in his Discussion) also published useful and colourful background to the mystery of the missing Prussian.  

How, in the end, does Lewis address the haunting, lingering question of the book’s title? Ah, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it. And where’s the mystery in that?

Lewis, Darrell: “Where is Dr Leichhardt? The greatest mystery in Australian history”
ISBN 978 1 921867 76 7 (pbk)
Monash University Publishing
Melbourne, Australia, May 2013
RRP AU$39.95 (+P/P)


Adfill.7 centre BLOCK 1 600x150 Lingering visitors

          LOGO BNE-Marketing LOGO OrmeauSS 60pxH PNG-2