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Lost soul rides into the sunset

9 June 2012 28,555 views No Comment

LUDWIG Leichhardt’s interior life throws up clues to his fatal fascination with inland exploration.

Fortunately for assiduous biographer John Bailey, the great scientist and explorer ”Dr” Ludwig Leichhardt left behind him an abundance of letters, diaries and field books, as well as his detailed Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, published in London in 1847. Bailey is not the first historian or biographer to use this material but he brings a fresh approach to the life and times of Leichhardt, a courageous yet deeply flawed human.

Bailey’s writing style is passionate yet lucidly concise, and therefore much more accessible than previous books about this quarrelsome and largely self-taught man. They include C.D. Cotton’s Ludwig Leichhardt and the Great South Land and Colin Roderick’s Leichhardt: The Dauntless Explorer, which were published in 1938 and 1988, respectively.

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Born in highly regimented Prussia in 1813, Leichhardt was the sixth of eight children. As Bailey explains in the opening chapters of Into the Unknown, as a young person Leichhardt was deeply disturbed by his disunited and relatively impoverished family, and especially by the fact his mother was illiterate. Shame about the latter led him to become a widely read polymath, especially absorbed by the natural world. As a result of a fascination with Australia, Leichhardt decided that exploration of our vast interior was ” the noblest cause to which he could aspire”.

Not long after arriving in 1842, Leichhardt was a widely recognised figure in colonial Sydney. A tall, thin man with a pointed nose, straggly beard, thick accent and poor eyesight, wearing a trademark stovepipe hat, he took copious notes about whatever he saw and did.

Leichhardt’s explorations began in triumph with his 5000-kilometre overland trek in 1844-45 to the lonely outpost of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula in northern Australia. After catching a boat to Brisbane, a party of 10, quickly reduced to eight (including ”two blackfellows” and a convict), left Jondaryan and Jimbour stations on the Darling Downs to journey into our unknown interior, often living off the land.

Remarkably for the time, only one of this party perished.

Thereafter, Leichhardt’s overland expeditions descended into torment, misery and despair, ending eventually in his disappearance, which remains one of the most enduring mysteries of 19th-century global exploration.

The misery began when, in late December, 1846, accompanied by six horsemen, an Aboriginal tracker and four dogs, he intended to ride westward across Australia to the fledging settlement of Perth on the Swan River. Extreme illness and the loss of most of his cattle, mules, sheep and goats caused him to abandon this expedition in June, 1847.

Yet after returning to Sydney, the persistent but irascible and increasingly tormented explorer began organising what proved to be his final expedition. He thought this trek would take two or three years.

On April 5, 1848, Leichhardt, 34, departed Cogoon Station, near Mount Abundance on the Darling Downs. With him were seven men, 20 mules, 40 bullocks and six spare horses but this time no dogs. Shortly before he left, Leichhardt had confided in his diary, which Bailey often quotes, that he felt ”increasing overwhelmed by depression and strange fits of melancholy”. After mounting his lead horse, he headed west and was never seen again.

Despite the passing of more than 150 years there is still, Bailey argues, ”no convincing explanation for the disappearance of Leichhardt and his party”.

This is despite claims that signs of his doomed expedition were found in inland Queensland, the Northern Territory, northern South Australia and central Western Australia. But, as Bailey puts it: ”Leichhardt, his men, their animals and mountains of equipment seem to have vanished without trace.”

Intriguingly, only one piece of equipment has been found and authenticated: a small brass plate, originally attached to the butt of a gun, presumably as a claim of ownership, stamped with ”Ludwig Leichhardt 1848”.

Bailey writes about the remarkable Prussian, whom Patrick White immortalised in his 1957 novel Voss, with the flair of a novelist, exploring complex personal interactions.

This particularly applies to Leichhardt’s homoerotic relationship with his handsome English friend, William Nicholson, who at the last minute refused to accompany him to Australia yet financially supported his exploratory ventures in the antipodes. Nicholson remained Leichhardt’s lifelong friend.

After becoming a physician at the Bristol General Hospital, Nicholson eventually died of dysentery in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1853, aged 37.

How fortunate we are that Bailey was troubled enough by previous versions of Leichhardt’s story to produce this impressive biography of someone he regards as deeply disturbed yet deeply misunderstood.

Bailey’s well-researched book not only chronicles Leichhardt’s great achievements in science and inland exploration but it is also an impressive and well-deserved contribution to the restoration of Leichhardt’s reputation.

INTO THE UNKNOWN
John Bailey
Macmillan, 391pp, $34.99

Emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books.

Sydney Morning Herald, June 9-10, 2012, SPECTRUM p. 36