Notes From the Road (13) - The Longest Walkabout: The Story of Ludwig Leichhardt


One of the discoveries I made in Australia is the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, early Australian explorer, botanist, and legend. Without realizing it, I had been roughly following the path of the first of Leichhardt's three forays into the bush...the difference being, that I was riding in an air-conditioned Toyota, and he was really walking it, back in the 1840's.

I had successfully reached the way-station of Barkly Homestead in Tablelands, Northern Territory after a drive of about five hours from Camooweal, Queensland. I only remember that particular leg because it was the most lonesome stretch of the trip...there is literally no sign of humanity between the two places. I had filled up with gas at Camooweal, Queensland, which is on the border with the Northern Territory, and the signs warned me that the next stop, Barkly Homestead, was a long ways away. I went back in the store and grabbed a large bottle of water, just in case.

That drive of 267 kilometers was the most memorable of my trip, just because it was soooo long and quiet. I think only three vehicles passed me in five hours, and two of them were road trains. I stopped several times to walk off the road, to check out the landscape and vegetation.

Just like this, pretty much the whole way from Camooweal to Tablelands...
...and they want to keep it that way.

Good grazing, if you're an Australian steer with your own personal 100 acres.
The soil is thin...
...but the termites love it.
The king of the Northern Territory savannah, the Ghost Gum, Corymbia aparrerinja.
I shot a short piece of video looking at this tree...just the tree, the sky, and the wind. Possibly my best moment in Australia.

I eventually arrived at the Barkly Homestead, and stopped for a late lunch...a huge, delicious burger and fries, icy-cold Coca-Cola, and a shining clean bathroom. Not what I expected for the middle of the Australian outback.

It was at Barkly Homestead that I happened to pick up the book at the top of this post, threw it in the back of the car, and forgot about it until I got home. It was then, while reading of the travels and travails of Ludwig Leichhardt, I realized how incredibly fortunate we are to live in the 21st century, instead of the 19th.

Leichhardt had undertaken nearly the same trip as I, from Sydney up into Queensland (before it was Queensland) and over across to the Northern Territory. He was a botanist with a desire to explore the interior of the continent, to find that magnificent river that all Australians of the time were sure existed...a mighty "Mississippi" that flowed from the center of the continent and drained on one of the coasts. From 1842 to 1848(?) he roamed the Australian outback, collecting and naming plants, rivers, and mountain ranges as he came across them. He took three official expeditions to find the great interior river, and therein is his lasting legacy.

His first trip, from August 1844 to December of 1845, was the best documented and productive. He drove his expedition from Sydney inland for about 150 miles, then turned north and west, roughly parallel to the Northeastern coast of the continent.

By Public domain map from Project Gutenberg Australia,
This long trip was intended to find a route by which Australians could reasonably make an inland trip from the southeastern settlements of Sydney and Moreton Bay to the northern outpost of Port Essington, and thereby open up the continent to settling and development. Along the way, though, the expedition endured floods, attacks from the natives, and near starvation, before finally arriving in Port Essington, emaciated ghosts of the hearty men that left fourteen months earlier.

The whole way, their path was driven by the need for water. Wherever water might be, that's where they went. Wrote Leichhardt:
"The detection of isolated waterholes in a wooded country, where there is nothing visible to indicate its presence, is quite a matter of chance, We have often unconsciously passed well-filled waterholes, at less than a hundred yards distant, whilst we were suffering severely from thirst. Our horses and bullocks never showed that instinctive faculty of detecting water, so often mentioned by other travelers; and I remember instances, in which the bullocks have remained the whole night, not 50 yards from the waterholes, without finding them; and, indeed, whenever we came to small waterholes, we had to drive the cattle down to them, or they would have strayed off to find water elsewhere. On several occasions I followed their tracks, and observed they were influenced entirely by their sight when in search of it; at times attracted by a distant patch of deeper verdure, at others following a down a hollow or a watercourse, but I do not recall a single instance where they found water for themselves....
In looking for water, my search was first made in the neighborhood of hills, ridges, and ranges, which from their extent and elevation were most likely to lead me to it, either in beds of creeks, or rivers, or in waterholes, parallel to them. In an open country, there are many indications which a practised eye will readily spot: a cluster of trees of a greener foliage, hollows of luxuriant grass, eagles circling in the air, crows, cockatoos, pigeons (especially before sunset), and the call of Grallina australis and flocks of little finches, would always attract our attention.
Much, indeed the greater portion, of my journey had been occupied in long reconnoitering rides; and he who is thus occupied is in a continued state of excitement, now buoyant with hope, as he urges on his horse toward some distant range or blue mountain, as he follows the favourable bend of a river; now all despairing and miserable, as he approaches the foot of the range without finding water from which he could start again with renewed strength, or as the river turns in an unfavourable direction, and slips out of his course. Evening approaches; the sun has sunk below the horizon for some time, but still he strains his eye through the gloom for the dark verdure of a creek, or strives to follow the arrow-like flight of a pigeon, the flapping of those wings has filled him with a sudden hope, from which he relapses again into a still greater sadness; with a sickened heart he drops his head to a broken and interrupted rest, whilst his horse is hobbled by his side, unwilling from excessive thirst to feed on the dry grass. How often I have found myself in these different states of the brightest hope and the deepest misery, riding along, thirsty, almost lifeless, and ready to drop from my saddle with fatigue; the poor horse tired like his rider, footsore, stumbling over every stone, running heedlessly against the trees, and wounding my knees! These were the hours of deepest despair on this long expedition, accompanying the men on their every step. But suddenly, the note of Grallina australis, the call of cockatoos, or the croaking of frogs is heard, and hopes are bright again; water is certainly at hand; the spur is applied to the flank of the tired beast, which already partakes in his rider's anticipations, and quickens his pace - and a lagoon, a creek, or a river is before him. The horse is soon unsaddled, hobbled, and well-washed; a fire is made, the teapot is put to the fire, the meat is dressed, the enjoyment of the poor reconnoiterer is perfect."
Now, if you think that sounds pretty rough, let me tell you, those are some of the rosiest passages of Leichhardt's memoirs. His first venture was counted as a brilliant success, considering that all but one of his party of nine emerged safely from the bush at their intended destination. But his second venture didn't go so well...
"Leichhardt's second expedition, undertaken with a government grant and substantial private subscriptions, started in December 1846. It was supposed to take him from the Darling Downs to the west coast of Australia and ultimately to the Swan River and Perth. However, after covering only 800 km the expedition team was forced to return in June 1847 due to heavy rain, malarial fever and famine."
That description of the second expedition glosses over one of the most excruciating journeys you're ever likely to read about. Here are a couple of the "highlights"...
"When we first came to Erythrina creek, a great number of blowflies suddenly appeared which not only blowed with maggots our sheepskins, but all our blankets, our shirts, and tarpawlings. These nasty insects were equally frequent...during the last 3 days and as the moist weather allowed the maggots to live, we scarcely could defend ourselves against their numbers. My poncho for instance had a piece of opossum cloak round the slit. This was blown and as it commenced to rain and I put my head through the slit, thousands came into the hair of my head and beard and I was teeming with maggots all over my body which, worse than lice, tried my substance, boring most eagerly into my skin. I washed, I combed, I brushed  and with the latter I tolerably succeeded in cleaning myself, most terribly disgusted with the filthy things."
"I cannot record all the miseries, all the anxieties of the last week. By God's mercy we are out of them in part and are out of a camp, where we had to stop from the 20th of April to the 2nd of May. I myself got very ill, a severe attack of fever took hold of me in consequence of eating too much of the broth of the young tainted meat and shook me most mercifully for several days. My feet were swollen in the ankles and a dark transparent spot formed within my left eye. Mr. Bunce, Mr. Turnbull, Perry, Hely, Mann, Brown all got worse and Wommai crawled only slowly along. In such a state, how could we attend to our rambling horses and cattle, how find our last 3 horses!" 
Somehow, after losing all their livestock and most of their horses, they managed to stumble back to an outpost, and thereby survive the ordeal. Not one to be so easily dissuaded of his dream of finding the promising heaven of the interior of Australia, Leichhardt rested a short while, recruited a new bunch of "explorers", and headed out once more. As author Hans Wilhem Finger describes it...
"In the early morning of 5 or 6 April 1848, when the meat from their first slaughter had dried sufficiently to be stored, the long procession left to follow the Cogoon to the north. Leichhardt rode ahead, reins in one hand, compass in the other, followed by Classen, leading the most amenable mule laden with essential equipment. Nineteen mules followed in a row, accompanied by one or two men or horseback; the cattle brought up the rear surrounded by the remaining mounted men and dogs scurried in between. A thick cloud of dust enveloped them all.
Unknown land stretched far in front and the convoy disappeared into a wilderness that devoured it for good." 
Neither Leichhardt nor any of his men of this third and final expedition were ever heard from again. After about three or four years, Australians began to wonder about them, and finally to assume they were lost forever. The legend of Ludwig Leichhardt was cemented in history, and Australians have spent the succeeding century and a half looking for any trace of them. A few small finds have been made, but none that could be confirmed and linked definitively to the party.

I hope they never do.

Tip Amount


Thank Chuck for your excellent work! Very informative material!
David Paal said…
Kind of makes you wonder about Lewis & Clark in this country when they went westward, or, Benton McKaye who mapped out the Appalachian Trail in the 1920s. It is hard to imagine anyone surviving, on a footpath alone, in a terrain like the Outback. I'm going to pickup the book. Thank-you Chuck for the discovery.

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