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"The absence of water and grass…precluded our progressing further…a severe disappointment, as we had just reached the part of the country through which Leichhardt most probably travelled."
- Augustus Charles Gregory
On an expedition to cross the Australian continent from East to West, the celebrated explorer Ludwig Leichhardt (1813-1848) and his party disappeared.
Despite his relatively short career as an explorer, the Prussian-born botanist had already earned his place as one of Australia’s great pioneer adventurers. His greatest expedition was a remarkable trek of almost 5,000 miles (approx. 8,000 km) that opened up the interior to further exploration and settlement.
Leichhardt was an unlikely explorer, with poor eyesight and a lack of bush skills. Despite this lack of experience, in 1843 he trekked across unfamiliar territory, striking overland from the Hunter River region in NSW to Moreton Bay in Queensland.
Leichhardt became determined to pursue his scientific interests and desire for adventure by travelling into far North Queensland.
The First Expedition
Leichhardt’s first expedition
In 1844 Leichhardt set out on his first ambitious expedition. Bound for the Northern Territory’s Port Essington, he crossed vast areas of previously unexplored terrain on a route skirting the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
After their departure from the Darling Downs in Queensland in October, little was heard of Leichhardt’s party’s progress, and as the weeks passed they were given up for lost.
When the expedition eventually reached their destination in December 1845 they caused a national sensation. Part of the reason for their new celebrity was that Leichhardt and his party had covered nearly 5,000 miles (ca. 8,000km), discovering a number of major rivers including the Burdekin, Lynd and Mitchell.
A dangerous journey
The long journey was not without incident. The party met and traded with many of the Aboriginal peoples through whose lands they travelled. They lost valuable equipment including four horses at the Roper River, and suffered an ambush by one hostile party of Aborigines that left naturalist John Gilbert dead and other members of the party injured.
Despite these privations, Leichhardt carefully recorded the botany, geology and the lie of the land in his drafted fieldbooks. He noted the presence of useful natural resources such as water, timber and minerals, and recognised the support of friends and benefactors by naming geographical features in their honour.
"Mr Gilbert was the only one, who received a deadly wound, a spear entering into the chest between the neck and the clavicle…when he was stooping to get out of his tent."
- Ludwig Leichhardt