Ludwig Leichhardt was last seen on April 3, 1848.
Ludwig Leichhardt, the enigmatic Prussian scientist vanished along with seven men, 20 mules, 50 bullocks, seven horses and masses of gear. Despite extensive searches and the efforts of some of the best indigenous trackers in the world, the entire expedition team vanished without trace.
The Overland Telegraph Line roughly following the track made ten years earlier when John McDouall Stuart crossed the continent. How is it that all of Leichhardt’s party disappeared without trace? There must have been harness, cooking implements, camp gear, hunting equipment, scientific instruments and numerous other non-perishable items with the party.
Who was Ludwig Leichhardt?
Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt attended the Universities of Berlin and Göttingen before undertaking field trips and further studies in several European countries. Despite not attaining a university qualification Leicchardt became known as Dr Leichhardt in recognition of his expertise and knowledge. He was keen to explore and study natural science in Australia and arrived in Sydney in 1842.
Impatient with delays
Impatient with bureaucratic delays for an official expedition from Sydney to Port Essington, Ludwig Leichhardt organised his own. With nine men Leichardt left Jimbour, just north of present-day Dalby, then the most inland settlement, in Aug 1844. One of the party was attacked and killed by Aborigines and two others chose to return to Jimbour. The remaining seven reached Port Essington in December 1845 having completed an overland journey of almost 5000 kilometres.
- Full details in the book Ludwig Leichhart – Lost in the Outback.
A celebrated explorer.
Their return saw Leichhardt feted and celebrated. Rewards for his achievment included a government grant of £1000 and private subscriptions of £1500. Leichhardt used the money to equip a more ambitious expedition from the Darling Downs to the Swan River colony. In December 1846 his party of eight including himself set out from the Darling Downs but delayed by heavy rain and weakened by fever, the party returned after travelling 800 kilometres. Leichhardt then organized a second Swan River expedition. With a party of seven, he set out from the Condamine River in March 1848. By 3 April he reached McPherson’s station, Cogoon, on the Darling Downs. After April 3, the expedition disappeared and no conclusive evidence found.
The theories overshadow the achievements.
There are many theories around Leichhardt’s disappearance. Murder, mutiny, starvation, drowning, eaten by crocodiles, living out his days with an Aboriginal tribe. Ludwig Leichhardt made one of the longest journeys of exploration overland in Australia. It was important in many ways; the discovery of promising pastoral land, the collection of map data and the record of plants and geology. His meticulous records are part of the Mitchell Library collection.
One small clue
An Aboriginal stockman found the remains of a gun lodged in a boab tree in 1900 and attached was a rough brass plate.
The National Museum of Australia acquired the plate in 2006. Experts believe that advances in science will be able to give more information about what happened to the expedition. Tests already show that the brass is from the early 1800s and the sulphur residue on the plate matches black gunpowder used in firearms of the era.
New science could help solve the mystery of Ludwig Leichhardt
The plate was found in a boab tree near Sturt Creek close to the Northern Territory – Western Australian border meaning that Leichhardt travelled further west than generally believed. New scientific methods such as micro-excavation could yet reveal more secrets. Microscopic plant spores or pollen specific to certain areas could provide a more accurate route for Leichhardt’s travels – and greatly narrow the search area for traces of the expedition.