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There is much more to the story of the great man's journeys across Queensland and Australia than the lasting mystery of his disappearance, as Robin Kleinschmidt and others explain. This piece was published in October 2012 in the book Queensland's German connections, and we acknowledge the GACCQ for permission to reproduce it here.

More info about this book, and how to order copies, please click here.


 DE flag button 50px With thanks to Dr Isolde Neugart, our German visitors can read a translation of this article here.

Natural scientist and explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt’s place in the history of Australia has been made permanent in its geography. Place names ranging from a suburb in Ipswich, suburb and municipality in Sydney, Leichhardt Streets in Brisbane, Sunbury in Victoria, and Bull Creek in Western Australia – along with highways, rivers and mountain ranges, an electorate and a national park – all remind us of the name.

Many remember Leichhardt for the mystery of the disappearance of he and his party on his third expedition across Australia, but what do we really know of the man before he vanished?

Born in 1813 in Trebatsch in Brandenburg (about 150km southeast of Berlin) into a middle-class family, Ludwig was the fourth son and sixth of eight children. Between 1831 and 1836 he studied philosophy, languages and natural science at the universities in Berlin and Göttingen, but did not receive a degree. Aside from philosophy and languages, the natural sciences were his main interest, and he continued his studies in London and Paris, extending this with field work in Italy, France and Switzerland.

On the recommendation of an English colleague, he sailed for Australia, arriving in February 1842. His primary objective was exploration of the flora, fauna and geology from his naturalist’s perspective. After an initial sortie into the Hunter Valley, he set out on a solo expedition to collect specimens between Newcastle and Moreton Bay.

When he returned to Sydney in 1844, he found the government planning an expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington in the far north of what is now the Northern Territory. Those plans came to naught, so Leichhardt decided to mount his own with the support of volunteers and financed by private funding. The government, still hoping to establish an overland route to the north, and a connection with Singapore, gave its support but without a financial contribution.

In August 1844 the party sailed to Moreton Bay, where Leichhardt visited the Gossner missionaries at Zion Hill (German Station), and commented favourably on their dedication, probity and sober lifestyle. The group then travelled to Jimbour station on the northern Darling Downs, the furthest limit of white settlement in 1844, where they were joined by a final contingent of four men.

Setting off on 1 October, Leichhardt’s lengthy and detailed journal recorded the epic journey through 3,000 miles (4,800km) of country almost entirely unknown to Europeans. By the time they reached Port Essington over 14 months later on 17 December 1845, the party had long been given up as lost. He had completed one of the longest journeys of exploration in Australia’s European history and returned to a hero’s welcome, his discoveries of expansive pastoral lands causing great excitement throughout the colony.

A year later Leichhardt set out again, leaving Moreton Bay in December 1846. This expedition received some government funding to supplement private subscriptions, its optimistic intention to cross the continent from east to west, from the Darling Downs to the Swan River settlement of Perth. However the party, beset by multiple difficulties with flooding rains, dwindling provisions and malarial fever, returned after seven months in June 1847, having penetrated only 800km into the interior of the country.

After recovering, Leichhardt undertook another lengthy expedition on the western Darling Downs and beyond, tracing the course of the Condamine River and charting a large tract of previously unknown country. His thorough documentation of his journeys and his scientific findings won him recognition in Europe.

On his return, he learned he was one of two people awarded the Paris Geographical Society’s annual prize for 1847. His expedition to Port Essington also won him the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in London for the “increased knowledge of the great continent of Australia” which it had generated. The latter medal is now in the possession of the National Museum of Australia.

His vision of crossing the continent had not died. In March 1848 he set out once more from the Condamine River and, with his departure from Coogoon Station in the Maranoa on 3 April 1848, this was to be the last recorded sighting of Ludwig Leichhardt and his party.

Several government expeditions mounted over several years to solve the mystery met with no success. The only clues were several trees marked ‘L’, one far to the north on the Flinders River near the Gulf of Carpentaria, which helped establish an approximate route.

The mystery of Leichhardt’s fate continued to exercise the minds of following generations of explorers: 50 years later, during David Carnegie’s 1896 expedition through the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts, he encountered some Aborigines who had among their possessions an iron tent peg, the lid of a tin matchbox, and part of the ironwork of a saddle. Carnegie speculated these were from Leichhardt’s expedition.

In 1900 another piece of evidence provided a clue. A native stockman found a small brass plaque inscribed LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848, attached to a burnt-out shotgun, slung from the lower branches of a boab tree – its trunk also scratched with an ‘L’ – near Sturt Creek, close to the state border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, a little east of the Great Sandy Desert. Taken together, the sequence of clues and markings suggest Leichhardt may have broadly retraced his first expedition, veering west then southwest across the Top End after leaving Queensland.

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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