The enduring mystery of Ludwig Leichhardt

A rock painting believed to depict German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who travelled through Arnhem Land in 1845. The rock painting is in Kakadu National Park. The enduring mystery of Leichhardt’s fate still intrigues the nation.

NATIONAL: Could Aboriginal Australia hold the key to one of Australia’s lasting mysteries – the fate of German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, asks CHRIS MUNRO.

To this very day it remains one of this country’s most evocative mysteries.

Arguably one of the greatest scientists, navigators and explorers of his time simply vanishes without a trace somewhere in Australia’s vast and unforgiving red heart.

In 1848 German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt set off from the Darling Downs in southern Queensland bound for the Swan River settlement in Western Australia. His final resting place is to this day unknown, but nonetheless hotly debated.

The manner in which the celebrated surveyor, along with two Aboriginal guides, five white men, seven horses, 20 mules and 50 bullocks perished, is equally as shadowy.

An almost endless list of theories have emerged over the years, ranging from a government-sanctioned assassination to an Aboriginal-led mass murder.

The one thing that links the most likely theories though – is Aboriginal people and our ancient practice of storytelling.

But it’s the white man’s mistrust of that oral history and Aboriginal people in general that ensures this mystery lingers on.

Recent discoveries may help shed some light though on the riddle that’s had historians stumped for over 100 years, perhaps bringing to and end this lack of faith in the world’s oldest continuing culture.

Only four years prior to Leichhardt’s ill-fated trip, he’d achieved the impossible.

An incredible 4800 merciless kilometres were navigated on foot, with every painstaking detail chronicled from southern Queensland to Port Essington in Arnhem Land.

The trip was privately funded and crewed by volunteers, making the accomplishment all the more staggering.

Following that first foray into the bush, Leichhardt emerged form the wilds of Australia’s Top End close to death but with the status of a legend.

This success fuelled bold aspirations for a cross-continent trek, not only to satisfy the German’s thirst for botanical knowledge, but to also ‘open–up’ the ‘unexplored’ centre for a developing pastoral industry.

Born in Trebatsch, Prussia in 1813, Ludwig was delicately built, severely short sighted with a melancholic nature.

But what he lacked in physical attributes, he certainly made up for in pursuits of the mind.

He was competent in at least six languages, and had studied medicine, geology, philosophy, natural sciences and physiology.

Armed with so much knowledge and an Aboriginal-like ‘bushmanship’, Leichhardt’s evaporation on this cross-continent journey becomes all the more cryptic.

In fact, Leichhardt boffins recently re-traced the coordinates of some 309 campsites documented in his first journey across the top of Australia.

The position of majority of these sites can be established exactly, with the rest established within a 400-metre range. It’s an incredible navigational feat.

But, at some point after passing through Roma, some 500 kilometres west of Morton Bay, Leichhardt and his large group disappeared forever, their dark silhouettes melting into the horizon amidst a billowing cloud of red dust.

Although, to say they disappeared forever isn’t quite correct.

The journey was constantly being watched. Just like Leichhardt’s last trip across the river courses of the Top End and through what is now known as the Kakadu National Park, his progress was being closely monitored and chronicled by Aboriginal groups.

We now know Aboriginal tribes documented his movements using rock paintings and of course detailed oral memoirs.

It’s at this juncture too where Leichhardt’s doomed journey westward becomes very interesting indeed.

It began when librarian Stephen Martin made a remarkable discovery back in 2003 whilst trawling the archives of the NSW State Library.

A letter received by a 19th century Sydney clergyman, Rev William Branwhite Clarke, sheds new light on the fate of the expedition, and the demise of its celebrated leader.

Dated April 2, 1874, the letter is penned by W.P. Gordon, a station owner from the Darling Downs who met Leichhardt in the days before his party vanished.

Gordon describes the two nights he spent with the explorer who “kindly showed me his maps, pointing out the route he intended…and where he hoped to find water in the unexplored parts”.

Gordon explains that some years after Leichhardt’s disappearance he moved from Ellangowan station to Wallumbilla where he enlisted the help of many “blacks”.

He goes on to describe how, over the next nine years, through the smoke of countless campfires, he befriended the Wallumbilla tribe who openly shared with him their stories and folklore.

One favourite anecdote referred to the death of a white man who was leading a party of mules and bullocks along the Maranoa River.

The group described to Gordon, in graphic detail, how a large group of Aboriginals had mustered, encircled the party and speared everyone in it.


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