The Lost Naturalist: A 163-Year-Old Australian Mystery

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When I was preparing to visit friends in Australia a few years ago, I read a book about all the ways the continent would kill you. The entry on scorpions, I remember, stood out because it said not to worry about them---their stings only hurt.

I was reminded of this while reading a story from Australian Geographic about the explorer Ludwig Leichhart, a Prussian naturalist who came to Australia in 1842 and, having studied everything from philosophy to medicine to natural sciences, began documenting the continent's flora, fauna and geology. After six years, though, Leichhart disappeared. He was only 34.

Leichhart is renowned in Australia for an expedition he undertook in 1844. He set off from southern Queensland, near current-day Brisbane, and led a small group nearly 3,000 miles to Port Essington on the northwest tip of the continent. It was a grueling journey through horrible heat and humidity. They men had to eat rancid meat and became covered in boils. One was killed by Aborigines. When Leichhart arrived at his party's final destination on December 17, 1845, after 15 months of traveling, he wrote, "I was deeply affected in finding myself again in civilised society, and could hardly speak."

Although Leichhart didn't succeed in his mission to find a good route to Port Essington, he was rewarded with gold medals from the geographical societies in London and Paris.

A second expedition, begun in December 1846, was less successful. Leichhart set out to travel from the east coast to the west coast (near the Swan River), but managed only about 500 miles before turning back, overcome by rain, malaria and a lack of food.

But it was the third expedition that was truly doomed. In March 1848, Leichhart again set out, this time with five other white men, two native guides, horses, mules, bullocks, pots, horseshoes, saddles, nails and plenty of other supplies. Again the goal was to traverse the continent from east to west. But after they left McPherson's Station on the Darling Downs, they were never heard from again.

Theories have included: the party drowning in a river (which would account for the fact that no one has ever found a pile of bones and supplies), a massacre by Aborigines, assassination by the British colonial government with poisoned flour, and poor navigation skills.

The most likely answer might be that they simply ran out of water and died before they could find any more. Evidence of that includes a 6-inch-long brass plate, now at the National Museum of Australia, with Leichhart's name and the year 1848 that was found in 1900 in the outback near the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. Though its history is somewhat murky, it seems to support the idea that the party managed to get as far as the Simpson Desert, some two-thirds of the way across the continent.

But water is scarce in that part of Australia, and even if they had decided to abandon their journey and travel up to Port Essington, they would have been out of luck---the settlement had been deserted.

And then there's the story told by some Aboriginal people in 1889 or 1890, of four men on horses who came from the northeast but died, searching fruitlessly for water among the rocks.

Until someone finds a pile of 160-year-old bones and explorer supplies, though, the tale remains a mystery.

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