Leichhardt’s reputation as a heroic explorer tarnished somewhat after the aborted second expedition, and the enigma of his disappearance allowed armchair critics to ponder on his character flaws, bushcraft and leadership skills. Australian writer Dan Sprod (1994) placed the second venture into more reasonable context when he wrote:
“The leader’s choice of October for setting out was not a good one but information on weather patterns to guide him was meagre in the 1840s. The heavy rains did not lead directly to the failure of the project although they, coupled with an unwise choice of diverse stock, did impede the progress of the party, and the heavy labour associated with lost and bogged stock probably contributed to a lowering of the men’s resistance to disease.
“Leichhardt’s decisions on the diversity of stock taken were influenced by the unofficial nature of the project, his limited financial resources, and his recognition of the very long period that the expedition would be in the field. He failed to take sufficient medicines, but even if more were taken, it is likely they would have been ineffective ...
“… and the expedition would have pressed ahead if it had not been for the recurring fever which Leichhardt had no means to control. This disease was transmitted by mosquito and was probably dengue fever. The sickness led, not only to a physical unability [sic] of the party to continue, but to the dispersal of the stock on which the expedition relied for food and transport.”
There seems little doubt that Leichhardt learned from his travails, Simpson (1997) observing that he “had a philosophy, simple yet radical for the times: where indigenous people could live and thrive on what nature provided, so too could he and his party ... Nothing that grew, swam, crawled, hopped, ran or flew escaped his scrutiny. His knowledge of botany was invaluable, and he had a scientist’s curiosity coupled with a willingness to try anything.”
He learned all he could from the Aborigines he encountered, studying the foods they ate and their methods of preparation, and was enthralled by the native plants and fruits they consumed. Simpson pointedly noted that no member of Leichhardt’s 14-month journey to Port Essington succumbed to scurvy – unlike Charles Sturt’s expedition from Adelaide at the same time, where the disease disabled every member and killed one. Leichhardt discovered that a spinach-like herb known as ‘fat-hen’ was “an excellent vegetable” and an effective scurvy preventative.
Although Leichhardt is remembered primarily as a great explorer, his first motivation was scientific discovery. His Journal of an Overland Expedition gives absorbing insight into the thoroughness with which he conducted his explorations – as well as the logistical challenges of securing and maintaining his team’s progress. Food, water and shelter, for men and animals, were daily concerns, Leichhardt making more than 40 reconnaissance rides himself, scouting around and ahead of the party, whilst documenting findings, producing maps, and writing up every geological, zoological and botanical feature encountered or observed.
He continues to be an enigmatic figure but, whatever the truths, his achievements are both undoubted and remarkable. His story was the inspiration for Patrick White’s novel Voss, and subsequently for the opera by Richard Meale based on that work.
It is fitting that Leichhardt’s name is remembered in daily use around Australia, a link to the many place-names he gave to rivers, mountains and features, after the friends, sponsors and supporters in the colony who had assisted his efforts, leaving an indelible mark – in so many different ways – on the history and discovery of this country.
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