AUSTRALIA - HISTORICAL STORIES
For a long time it has been part of the accepted mythology of early Australian exploration and settlement that the lands explored and opened up were uninhabited. In the rare cases where it simply could not be denied that Aborigines lived in the area, it was argued that they were peace-loving primitives, few in number, who stood aside as the all conquering Europeans took over their lands. This idyllic picture had, of course, been shown to be nonsense.
Only months after the arrival of the First fleet in Port Jackson, two convicts were killed at Rushcutter's Bay. Governor Arthur Phillip was speared while attempting to befriend Aborigines near Manly, and for some years in the 1800s a war raged between early settlers and the original inhabitants of the Hawkesbury River region. Nowhere were the Aborigines more passionately committed to ridding their area of Europeans than on the coast of central and northern Queensland. Not only were the local Aborigines no 'peace-loving primitives' but they had a reputation for cannibalism, they operated in tribes numbering hundreds, and they showed no respect for Europeans who were shipwrecked or lost their way in the treacherous reefs off the coast. The stories of the shipwrecked Eliza Fraser, and of young Mary Watson, who single-handedly fought off an Aboriginal invasion, hear witness to the determination of the north Queensland Aborigines to defend their land against intruders and invaders.
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It is against this background that the expedition led by Edward Kennedy to explore the country lying between Rockingham Bay and Cape York must be understood. Apart from the inevitable human errors on the part of the explorers, it is important to recognise that the Aborigines played a large part in ensuring that the expedition went wrong. In 1848 Edward Kennedy was recognised as one of the country's finest explorers. He had arrived in Australia in 1840 and been appointed to the Surveyor-General's Department. In this capacity he had explored the areas and river systems around Port Phillip Bay. On the basis of this experience he was chosen as Surveyor-General Sir Thomas Mitchell's second-in-western Queensland and to find a route overland from New South Wales to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The expedition was far from successful and Kennedy played only a minor role. After crossing the Queensland boarder the group followed a questionable river system to the Maranoa. Abase camp was established and for the next four months Kennedy was in charge of this while Mitchell made excursions along small rivers. Just as supplies were running out, Mitchell found what he thought was a major river running north to the Gulf.
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The expedition was forced to return to Sydney but within eight weeks Kennedy, his status as an explorer greatly enhanced, returned to the junction of the Alice River and the Barcoo with the instruction to find any river which might flow to the Gulf. For nearly a year he searched for a river to the coast without success. He returned to Sydney on 7 February 1848 and was praised for the way he had handled the expedition and death with the problems of morale, drought and Aborigines. It was now decided that the problem of an overland route to the Gulf should be handled from the coast rather than the inland. Kennedy explained the plan in a letter to his friend, the Reverend W. B. Clark:
To proceed with party and Equipment in the Tam o'Shanter to Rockingham Bay, 18 degrees South (if ready on the 26th Inst. under the convoy of the Rattlesnake) to travel thence by Land to Princess Charlotte Bay and Cape York keeping the most convenient distance from the Coast. After communication with the Rattlesnake or Bramble at Port Albany near Cape York and receiving a supply of provisions to be provided by the Government in 4 months' time - To move down the East Shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Water Plaets, ascertain whether that be the Estuary of the Mitchell of Leichardt and if so follow it up to the junction of the 'Lynd' - From the junction of the Lynd with the Mitchell River strike off in a W.S.W. direction to the 'Flinders', determine whereabouts that River has its source and connect my work with Sir T.L. M.'s discoveries in 1846 on the Belyando or other convenient point and thence by the most convenient route to Sydney.
With the luxury of hindsight we can see this expedition was doomed to failure. The virtually impenetrable mangrove swamps of the Cape York Peninsula, the vast distances involved (it was over 3000 kilometres from Rockingham to Belyando and a further 2000 kilometres back to Sydney), the totally inadequate knowledge of the topography, and the belief that a combined land and sea expedition could successfully work in tandem, all militated against the success of the operation. However, although it took only twelve weeks to organise the expedition, no criticism can be lodged about the efficiency of the operation. All but two of the people who had accompanied Kennedy on his 1847-48 expedition signed on again. Kennedy noted that the purchasing of stores was 'most fully considered' and 'arrangements and appointments seemed to me to be perfect'. Although the arrangements were rapid, the organisation was sound. Kennedy recorded only one complaint about the organisation. He argued correctly that 'There should have been some person qualified to take charge in case of anything happening to me - but there is not.'
The first hint of trouble occurred when the Tam o'Shanter arrived at Rockingham Bay. It became immediately apparent that the terrain was far more rugged than that indicated on the expedition maps. The explorers spent all of 21 and 22 May looking for a place amongst the thick jungle, swamps and mangroves where they could land. Kennedy wrote that he could 'confess a viler looking country never looked me in the face before'. It was becoming apparent that Kennedy had committed himself to an expedition over terrain which previous coastal explorers had romanticised. This problem was greatly compounded, as Kennedy explained to some crew members, by the fact that once the expedition left the ship there was no room for manoeuvring. They could not turn back because the ships were not going to wait in Rockingham Bay. As it was believed that an easy terrain existed between Rockingham Bay and Cape York, there seemed no point in the ships waiting. Such was the expedition's confidence about the terrain that both sheep and supply carts were included as part of the entourage.
Realising that it was virtually impossible to follow the coastline (the shore of Rockingham Bay had no fewer than six river mouths), Kennedy decided 'the sooner I get inland 60 or 70 miles the better'. This meant that from the moment the expedition started it was dependent on guesswork. Everything was going to depend on the country between the shore and the mountains. Kennedy struck inland but was stopped by a swamp. He returned to the coast only to find that he was stopped by the mouth of the Tully River. It took two days to build 'punts' and to float the expedition's supplies across the river. Once across the river Kennedy again headed inland but once again was stopped by impassable swamps. Kennedy was now moved backwards. South of the Tully River he repeated the process of 'punting' all the stores across the Murray River. Again an attempt to move inland was made but Kennedy was once again driven back by swamps where he was knee-deep in stagnant water and trying to wind his way through stands of spindly tea-trees. He continued south across the Dallachy Creek and it was not until he had crossed Wreck Creek that he finally found an Aboriginal trail heading westward. At last confronted with the possibility of escaping from the waterlogged coastal strip. Kennedy was eager to get his expedition truly started. Then, to compound problems, two members of the team fell sick.
Three weeks after they had begun, Kennedy and his team had travelled only thirty kilometres - and most of that had been in the wrong direction. With the discovery of the track the expedition moved inland and Kennedy started to move north on the mountain slopes, keeping himself above the swampy coastal plain. Having successfully traversed the coastal swamps, Kennedy almost certainly felt that the worst of his troubles were behind him. The truth was that his mot serious problem - bad relations with the local Aborigines - was just about to begin. As early as July relations between the Aborigines and the explorers began to deteriorate. In early July one Aborigine narrowly missed spearing Kennedy and Kennedy retaliated by shooting Aborigines. Now the combination of marshy terrain, jungle with dense undergrowth and problems with Aborigines began to work inexorably and destructively against the expedition. Things started to go successively wrong. One cart broke its axle, the other cart became impossibly bogged in knee-deep mud and both had to be abandoned. The men became weaker, the sheep were no longer healthy, the expedition was making next to no progress and the prospect of a dry, flat terrain seemed more and more remote. All this after six weeks during which they had travelled thirty kilometres from the coast and had progressed no farther north than where the Tam o'Shanter had landed them. Two days after they abandoned their carts, the expedition had moved only five kilometres.
Inevitably human problems became the consequence of physical duress. It was discovered that Niblett, the second-in-command had been taking more than his share of rations. He was demoted, leaving Kennedy with the young and inexperienced Carron as his deputy. Thefts of food became more and more common and created an atmosphere of mistrust in the camp. by mid-September the explorers had still only moved eighty kilometres north. By mid-October the stores were running low - all the sugar had gone, they had less than 100 kilograms of flour left, and half the horses had been killed. For the last two weeks of October they made rapid progress, then suddenly found themselves back in dense tropical rainforest and were forced to cut their way, metre by metre, through the undergrowth. After five months of solid labour and endurance under oppressive conditions, some of Kennedy's party were incapable of carrying on.
Kennedy decided to establish a base camp and to push to the coast to replenish supplies. At the base camp he left eight men under the supervision of the botanist William Carron. In 1849 Carron wrote Narrative of an Expedition undertaken under the direction of the late Mr Assistant Surveyor E.B. Kennedy for the Exploration of the Country lying between Rockingham Bay and Cape York. These extracts from that journal tell the story of the demise of the base camp.
Of the party Kennedy had left at the base camp only two had survived. Supplies had run out, they had been harassed by Aborigines, and they had been exhausted by the arduous journey which had preceded the establishment of the camp. Kennedy's own story is not dissimilar to the story of the base camp - only every problem he had was markedly worse. The best account of the final weeks of Kennedy's life is that given by Jackey Jackey, the faithful and loyal Aborigine who went on with Kennedy in an attempt to reach Cape York, the other three members of the party having been left behind. William Carron recorded Jackey Jackey's story thus:
The next morning we went on, and Mr Kennedy told me we should get round to Port Albany in a day; we travelled on all day till twelve o'clock (noon) and then we saw Port Albany; then he said 'there is Port Albany, Jackey - a ship is there - you see that island there', pointing to Albany island; this was when we were at the mouth of the Escape River; we stopped there a little while; all the meat was gone; I tried to get some fish but could not; we went on in the afternoon half a mile along the river side, and met a good lot of blacks, and we camped; the blacks all cried out 'powad, powad', and rubbed their bellie; and we thought they were friendly, and Mr Kennedy gave them fish hooks all round; everyone asked me if I had anything to give away, and I said no; Mr Kennedy said, give them your knife, Jackey ... I told Mr Kennedy that very likely those blackfellows would follow us, and he said, 'No Jackey, those blacks are very friendly; I said to him 'I know those blackfellows well, they too much speak;' we went on some two or three miles and camped; I and Mr Kennedy watched them that night, taking it in turns every half hour all night ... the blacks came up, and they followed us all the day; all along it was raining, and I now told him to leave the horses and come on without them, that the horses made too much track. Mr Kennedy was too weak, and would not leave the horses. We went on this day until towards evening, raining hard, and the blacks followed us all the day, some behind, some planted before; in fact, blacks all around following us. Now we went into a little bit of scrub, and I told Mr Kennedy to look behind always; sometimes he would do so, and sometimes he would not look behind to look out for the blacks. Then a good many blackfellows came behind in the scrub, and threw plenty of spears, and hit Mr Kennedy in the back first. Mr Kennedy said tome, 'Oh! Jackey, Jackey! shoot 'em, shoot 'em. Then I pulled out my gun and fired and hit one fellow all over the face with buck shot; he tumbled down, and got up again and again and wheeled right round, and two blackfellows picked him u and carried him away. They went away then a little way, and came back again, throwing spars all around, more than they did before; very large spares. I pulled out the spear at one from Mr Kennedy's back, and cut out the jag with Mr Kennedy's knife; then Mr Kennedy got his gun and snapped, but the gun would not go off. /the blacks sneaked along by the trees, and speared Mr Kennedy again in the right leg, above the knee a little, and I got speared over the eye, and the blacks were now throwing their spears all ways, never giving over, and shortly again speared Mr Kennedy in the right side; there were large jags to the spears, and I cut them out and put them into my pocket ... then I carried Mr Kennedy into the scrub, he said 'Don't carry me a good way;' then Mr Kennedy looked this way, very bad (Jackey rolling his eyes). I said to him 'Don't look far away,' as I thought he would be frightened; I asked him often, 'Are you well now?" and he said, 'I don't care for the spear wound in my leg, Jackey, but for the other two spear wounds in my side and back,' and said, 'I am bad inside, Jackey.' I told him blackfellow always die when he got spear in there (the back); he said, 'I am out of wind, Jackey;' I asked him 'Mr Kennedy, are you going to leave me?' and he said, 'Yes, my boy, I am going to leave you,' he said. 'I am very bad, Jackey; you take the books, Jackey, to the captain, but not the big ones, the Governor will give anything for them;' I then tied up the papers; he then said, 'Jackey, give me paper and I will write,' I gave him paper and pencil, and he tried to write, and he then fell back and died, and I caught him as he fell back and held him ... I went back again into the scrub; then I went down the creek which runs into the Escape River, and I walked along the water in the creek very easy, with my head only above water, to avoid the blacks, and get out of their way ... the next morning I went and saw a very large track of blackfellows, I went clear of the track and of the swamp or sandy ground; then I came to a very large river, and a large lagoon, plenty of alligators in the lagoon, about ten miles from Port Albany ... then next morning at four o'clock, I went on as hard as I could go all the way down ... I went on a little way and saw the ship and boat ... and then I was on the rock cooeying, and murry murry glad when the boat came for me.
From the simple honesty of Jackey Jackey's unadorned account of Kennedy's final days it becomes clear what had gone wrong with the final expedition. In essence the expedition had failed because the ruggedness and savagery of the terrain had been far harsher than Kennedy had anticipated, no real provision had been made for the animosity of the local Aborigines, and there had been an excessive amount of pure bad luck. In his book William Carron praised Kennedy's leadership and self-sacrifice. The available evidence supports Carron's assessment. Certainly Kennedy had no idea of the problems the terrain presented. He was simply misled by the coastal explorers into the misguided belief that the country he was going to travel over was accessible and easy. The truth is that even a modern day expedition would be confronted with similar difficulties to Kennedy's. Equally Kennedy, who was not an experienced explorer, could never have guessed that the Aborigines would not give him free passage in exchange for the beads and knives and pieces of material he offered them. It has been argued that Kennedy's problem with the Aborigines was the legacy of previous explorers in the region who had shot the Aborigines at the slightest hint of aggression.
The story of the crash landing of Charles Kingsford Smith's Southern Cross in March 1929 and the subsequent deaths of Keith Anderson and Bobby Hitchcock while searching for the lost plane is a classic drama of pioneering aviation. It is a tale of intrigue, rivalries, accusation and counter-accusation, of yellow journalism and the attempted character assassination of a national hero, of the risks taken by the early pilots, and of the harsh, destructive power of the Australian desert. It culminated in an official enquiry and did much to damage the reputations of Charles Kingsford Smith and his co-pilot Charles Ulm. To understand the complexity of the 'Coffee Royal' incident, as it has become known, it is necessary to recall the events which occurred during the preceding twelve months. In 1928 Charles Kingsford Smith became the first man to fly across the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Australia. The original crew which accompanied Kingsford-Smith to the US included Keith Anderson and Bobby Hitchcock. Anderson was a longtime friend and one time business colleague of Kingsford Smith.
In the US Anderson, who had helped to plan the Pacific flight and who was to have been the third crewmember of the historic flight, was dismissed. Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm successfully flew the Pacific and were bailed as national heroes. Anderson and Hitchcock were forgotten in the adulation and accolades. Subsequently Anderson instituted court proceedings against Kingsford Smith for a series of breaches of promise. Considerable controversy surrounds the court action. some sympathetic observers argue that Anderson was cajoled into suing Kingsford Smith and the subsequent out-of-court settlement of 1000 pounds immediately patched up the friendship. A more skeptical interpretation argues that Anderson felt that he had been cheated of both fame and wealth and that the court case was the action of a deeply resentful man. Whatever the interpretation Kingsford Smith implicitly acknowledged the justice of his former partner's claims when he paid Anderson 1000 pounds. The fated Anderson then used this money to buy Kookaburra - the plane he died in while looking for Kingsford Smith.
By early 1929 Anderson and Kingsford Smith seem to have been on amicable terms. They had both agreed to pursue independent careers. Kingsford Smith, with his partner Charles Ulm, was preparing the Southern Cross for a flight that would circumnavigate the world and would make a bid at the London-to-New York record. Anderson and his partner Bobby Hitchcock had bought the Kookaburra, a tiny Westland Widgeon monoplane. They were secretly planning a bid on the world air endurance record. To understand what went wrong with Anderson and Hitchcock's search for Kingsford Smith it is necessary, in part, to understand the particular weakness of a Westland Widgeon monoplane. These tiny planes were not built for international journey. They were high-winged two-seaters specifically designed for aerial touring. Apart from their smallness, the Westland Widgeons were powered by a highly inefficient and dangerous 4-cylinder, air-cooled Cirrus engine. In his book Heroic Australian Air Stories Terry Gwynn-Jones explains the problem with the engine:
The push rods that operated the valves of the early model Cirrus engines were notorious trouble makers and were prone to dropping out of place, causing a cylinder to stop operating and forcing pilots to make hair-raising emergency landings. Mind you, it only took a few minutes adjustment with a pair of spanners to rectify the fault. It was a defect that pilots and engineers operating the Cirrus engines were well aware of cautious ones checked, if necessary re-adjusted, and religiously tightened the cantankerous valve operating system before every flight.
It was this problematic engine which led to the deaths of Anderson and Hitchcock. When Kingsford Smith, Ulm, the radio operator T.H. McWilliams and the navigator H. A. Litchfield left Richmond airfield at 9.45 am on 30 March 1929 in the Southern Cross, Anderson and Hitchcock were busy at the same airfield fitting long distance fuel tanks to their tiny plane. The Southern Cross was laden down with some two and a half tonnes of fuel and its predetermined flight path was a direct line to Wyndham on the northern coast of Western Australia. It had been in the air for only half an hour when an accident occurred. The navigator, H.A. Litchfield, moved across the cabin and leant out the window to take a navigational reading from the sun. As he was moving back across the cabin h accidentally knocked a specially constructed serial which was designed to float behind the aircraft. The aerial unravelled itself and fell from the plane, thus severing all radio contact.
Realising this, T.H. McWilliams suggested to Kingsford Smith that the plane return to Richmond airfield. Kingsford Smith evaluated the situation. He realised that if he was to return safely he would have to dump-over 3000 litres of fuel. He felt that as the weather was fine it made sense to continue on to Wyndham where the aerial could be replaced. This set in motion a chain of events which would result in the deaths of Anderson and Hitchcock. Only minutes after the Southern Cross lost radio contact with the ground, Richmond airfield received an urgent telegraphed message reporting wild dust stories sweeping across the northern desert area of Western Australia. The Richmond radio operator was instructed to contact the Southern Cross to abort the flight. He could not make contact. The Southern Cross flew directly into the maelstrom. Somewhere beyond Alice Springs the plane hit simultaneously a red dust storm, a thunder storm, and an electrical storm. This unusual combination caked the plane in a thick red mud which seriously reduced visibility. At times Ulm and Kingsford Smith could only see a few meters ahead of the place. The Southern Cross reduced speed and, as Kingsford Smith later reported, 'deafening thunder claps and lightning had us very frightened'. By dawn the dust storm had eased but it was still raining heavily. It was then that they became concerned about their location. A heavy cloud cover prevented Litchfield from taking a reading from the sun. Kingsford Smith became convinced that the compass was not registering correctly.
A break in the clouds revealed a valley and Kingsford Smith told the rest of the crew that they were on course for Wyndham. He followed the valley for about half an hour until he realised that he had made a mistake. He then flew south searching for landmarks. After another half an hour a creek, some huts and a small group of people were sighted. The terrain made it dangerous to land so a note was dropped asking the people to make a marker pointing in the direction of Wyndham. After fifteen minutes a marker pointing south-west appeared on the ground below. Kingsford Smith told the crew, 'I don't see how that can be correct, but they should know. We'd better follow their directions.' He later claimed that although the south-west arrow made no sense it was still more reliable than the Southern Cross's faulty compass. After another thirty minutes of flying Kingsford Smith became convinced that the direction was wrong. He turned the Southern Cross around and flew back to the area where he had sighted the people. On the way back the aircraft quite suddenly ran out of fuel. For twenty-eight hours the plane had made no radio contact. Then by some accidental miracle a single eleven-word radio message - 'We are about to make a forced landing in the bad country' - was received. After that all was silence. In his logbook Ulm wrote what could have been his last words. "The others' faces are as white as starch. I suppose mine is too. I feel pretty sick."
Kingsford Smith attempted to land the plane. All appeared to have gone well (to the great relief of the crew) until the aircraft's left wheel sank into a swampy area and the plane slewed to a dramatic halt. No one had been injured. The crew wee marooned in a desert. The radio operator, McWilliams, attempted to build a workable radio aerial so that their location could be broadcast to the outside world. After some hours the operator realised that the task was hopeless. 'Our only hope,' McWilliams said to Kingsford Smith, 'of getting off a message is to rig up some sort of generator wheel.'
'Good. Then we'll do that. We've got to try everything to let them know what's happened to us.' Kingsford Smith replied. The flight and crash-landing had become a series of errors. The error of not being singleminded about the plane's location. The error of landing in a swampy region. The bad luck of not being able to set up an aerial. Then the near-disaster turned into a read disaster when Litchfield went to the emergency food locker and found, to his horror, that all they had was a a half pond of coffee, a block of chocolate, a packet of biscuits and a flask of brandy. Why the locker, which had been well stocked with rations the day before they left Richmond, was now nearly empty has never been explained. It was a mysterious fact which ensured that the long wait for the arrival of rescuers was greatly complicated. In his journal Ulm recorded that the first night was terrible. The men were invaded by mosquitoes and nobody got much sleep. In the morning they made breakfast out of what was left of the supplies.
Then we brewed a weak coffee and laced it with about one quarter of the brandy we had. As we began sipping the hot drink, Smithy held his mug aloft, grinned at us and said, 'Well, mates, we may be lost, but at least we've got coffee royal to drink!
At the time Kingsford Smith was Australia's greatest hero. It is therefore surprising that it took the government days to begin mounting a search for the missing airman, his crew and his plane. This delay resulted in a number of ad hoc private searches being launched. Les Holden left from Sydney's Mascot aerodrome in a Canberra airliner and Lawrence Wackett attempted to fly a modified Widgeon over the blue Mountains but was forced back to the coast. The official search began in an almost casual manner. The Controller of Civil Aviation asked his friend Norman Brearley if Brearley's West Australian Airways could undertake a search radiating out from the airfield at Derby on the Western Australian coast. The public, concerned about a missing national hero, found this very unsatisfactory. In Sydney a mass meeting was held at the Town Hall and 2000 pounds (the modern day equivalent would be about $100,000) was raised to launch the Southern Cross Rescue Fund. The New South Wales state government contributed a further 1000 pounds. The level of public concern grew to fever pitch. The public was outraged at the inactivity of the federal government. Finally Prime Minister Bruce bowed to public pressure and, twelve days after the radio distress call, five De Havilland 90A biplanes and the HMAS Albatross were sent to the area where it was thought that Kingsford Smith had crash-landed.
It was against this background that Keith Anderson decided to forget his past disagreement with Smithy and involve himself and his Westland Widgeon in the search. Meanwhile Kingsford Smith and his crew were surviving in the desert. After endless attempts to rig up a generator they had abandoned all hope of contacting the outside world. Their first task was to find some regular food supply to stave off starvation. They found shellfish on the trees in the swampy regions. Ulm recorded the events in his diary:
At first the taste of these things was so bitter it made me vomit. But hunger eventually forced me to overcome my revulsion, and I joined the others in the meals we made from these blasted things.
For over a week they were forced to survive on a diet of shellfish and coffee. The results of such an unbalanced cuisine were inevitable. The crew became ill. Back in Sydney rumours about the disappearance of Kingsford Smith and his crew were rife. The most widely promulgated rumour was that the disappearance was nothing more than an elaborate hoax designed to draw attention to, and raise money for, the record breaking attempt. The 'publicity stunt' rumour was actively promoted by two Sydney papers - Smith's Weekly and The guardian. The papers claimed that they had discovered that Charles Ulm had a contract with a rival Sydney newspaper to provide reports of the progress of the Southern Cross and newsworthy items about the voyage. They also argued that Kingsford Smith had pre-arranged the crash and that Keith Anderson had pre-arranged to 'find' Smithy. Years later, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary, people still believed that Kingsford Smith and Anderson had colluded in an elaborate hoax.
The scene was now set for the tragedy which followed. Kingsford Smith was slowly starving to death on a mudflat in Western Australia, Anderson was searching for Smith in a mechanically inadequate aeroplane, and the gutter press of Sydney were howling 'hoax'. Far from taking part in a pre-arranged hoax, it seems, from the evidence, that Anderson and Hitchcock decided to go looking for Kingsford Smith on an impulse and without proper preparation. If they had seriously evaluated the dangers they would have realised that an ill-equippd Westland Widgeon was the last plane to use to search the vast areas of outback "Australia. Apart from the inadequacies of the Westland Widgeon as a search aircraft, there were problems with Anderson's particular plane. It had an unreliable compass, no radio, an unreliable engine and, as Anderson found to his detriment, it was missing an axe and a set of tools.
Anderson told newspaper reporters before he left: 'I don't believe for one minute that Smithy has faked this. It's foreign to the man's character.' Neither Anderson nor Hitchcock had any money. They borrowed enough to fill the Kookaburra's tank and flew to Blayney in western New South Wales. In Blayney the local garage owner, Bob Muir, refuelled the tiny aircraft free of charge. They were both so cold that Dick Jackson, one of Bob Muir's salesmen, lent them a leather coat. Between Blayney and Broken Hill the aircraft's compass started playing up. Anderson had to land to ask directions. At Broken Hill they found that their compass was 45 degrees out of alignment. It was clear that the flight should be aborted. The Civil Aviation Controller advised them to cancel the flight but Anderson ignored the advice arguing. 'I am flying under private arrangements and intend going on.' Between Broken Hill and Alice Springs the flight began to go seriously wrong. The engine lost power. The inevitable had happened. A push rod was out of place. The plane landed near Lake Eyre. A gold prospector saw it land and, according to a report in the Adelaide Advertiser of 30 May 1929.
He went over to see it, and there were to men to whom he spoke. One of the men said his name was Anderson, and he called his mate 'Bob'. They told him the exhaust valve was out of order. It knocked and caused them to land. They also said it was the best landing place they could see from the air. One of the men went to look for a get-off (place to take off). Mr Hitchcock had only a few tools. He had no spanner to turn the nuts, and had to undo them with a screwdriver and a thing that looked like a corkscrew.
Mr Anderson said to him, 'I thought you had a good set of tools' and Mr Hitchcock replied 'Someone stole them while I was in hospital.' Mr Hitchcock said he had only come out of hospital when the bus (aircraft) started. Mr Anderson said to him, 'If only you had told me at Broken Hill I would have got you some.' Mr Hitchcock replied that there were some tools in the machine. When they started up the engine two or three pieces of cotton waste came out of the exhaust pipe, and Mr Hitchcock said it was enough to cause trouble.
The machine had landed on soft spongy ground, and the witness and Mr Hitchcock pushed it until it moved under its own power to higher ground. The airmen told him that they reckoned it would take four hours to reach Alice Springs. Then they took to the air, and he did not see them again.
It was clear that the men should have abandoned their search at this point. The engine was unreliable and they did not have the tools or equipment to handle emergencies. But they went on to Alice Springs where Anderson sent a wire 'If Smithy not found tonight feel confident Kookaburra will pick him up Thursday' and predicted that Smithy had crash-landed near the Port George Mission on the Glenelg Estuary. This prediction, which was remarkably accurate, has always been used to support the argument that Kingsford Smith's crash-landing was staged.
Anderson and Hitchcock left Alice Springs to fly 1900 kilometres across the desert to Wyndham. They were appallingly ill-equipped. Apart from their mechanical and equipment problems, which they had failed to rectify in Alice Springs, they had only a day's rations aboard. In Terry Gwinn-Jones' words, 'it is obvious that the Kookaburra and its crew were a disaster going somewhere to happen.' Seven hours out from Alice Springs the plane was forced to make an emergency landing. The sad tale of the needless deaths of Hitchcock and Anderson was poignantly told in a 'diary' which Anderson pencilled on the tail of the Kookaburra.
By the time these words were written the Southern Cross had been found. During the next week, after much pressure from the friends of Anderson and Hitchcock, over 110,000 square kilometres of desert was searched. A Qantas plane finally found the Kookaburra. It was 300 kilometres off-course and it was obvious from the air that both Hitchcock and Anderson were dead. It took five days for a search party to reach the plane. Their deaths were caused by a combination of factors which should have warned a more cautious and circumspect pair of airmen. The aircraft had been inadequate for such a journey. The engine had been unreliable. The tools aboard the plane had been virtually non-existent. 'the axe, which could have been used to cut a temporary runway, was missing. The food and water supplies were insufficient. And finally the tyranny of the second largest desert area in the world was overwhelming.
This was not the end to the disaster. When Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm returned to Sydney they were booed and abused by the waiting crowd. The popular press had convinced the public that Kingsford Smith had colluded with Keith Anderson on a publicity stunt and that Kingsford Smith, the arrogant publicity seeker, was therefore indirectly responsible for Anderson's death. An Air Enquiry Committee was set up to investigate the 'Coffee royal' debacle. It exonerated Kingsford Smith and Ulm, reaching the conclusion that there had been no hoax and that both emergency landings had been accidental. But Anderson and Hitchcock were hailed as heroes and the reputations of Kingsford Sjmith and Ulm were never completely restored.
'Tod die a lonely horrible death is bad, but not to know why is even worse.' So reads a diary note believed to have been written by Harold Bell Lasseter as he lay dying in an outback cave, waiting for rescuers to take him back to civilisation. The rescuers never came and Lasseter is believed to have died in the bush in his futile attempt to rediscover a reef of gold he had first found some thirty years previously. That is the generally accepted theory, although there are some schools of thought which say he in fact found the legendary reef and perhaps changed his name and identity to protect it. Whatever happened, the legend of Lasseter still inspires gold fanatics to load up four-wheel drives and aircraft and set off in search of the reef which he claimed was about sixteen kilometres long. However, no one has ever found the reef although Lasseter's diaries indicate fairly specific areas where he believed it to be.
But the biggest questions that hang over this mystery are why Lasseter himself could not find the reef again and what went so wrong in his search that it cost him his life. Fred Blakeley, the leader of the 1930s expedition to find the reef, has argued cogently that the answer is simple. Lasseter was self-deluded and the reef never existed. There are, however, other ways of explaining the puzzle. The legend goes back to 1897 when Lasseter, an Australian by birth and a naturalised American, decided to search for rubies in the western MacDonnell Ranges in the south of the Northern Territory. Lasseter had very little experience of the bush and wandered about aimlessly until he finally realised he was hopelessly lost. with one of his horses dead and the remaining horse close to death, Lasseter chanced upon a reef of gold which he estimated was eleven kilometres long and about three and a half metres wide, somewhere near the Western Australian/Northern Territory border. There was a later popular story that Lasseter had described the gold in the reef as being as 'thick as plums in a pudding'. What he really claimed was that an assay of samples showed the gold to be around three ounces (about 85 grams) to the ton.
Lasseter collected samples and then wandered for several days before collapsing from lack of water. By remote chance, a camel driver came across the unconscious Lasseter and took him to a nearby surveyors' camp where he was nursed back to life. One of the surveyors was a West Australian named Harding who was greatly excited by Lassseter's samples. Harding took Lasseter to Carnavon where they planned to set out and find the reef again. Two years later they finally got under way and after four torturous months during which they searched for landmarks indicating the presence of the reef, they apparently found it and collected more samples which they took back to Carnarvon. Here they registered their find but their watches were faulty so no exact location of the reef was ever documented. In Carnarvon their enthusiasm for their find was not matched by investor interest. The goldfields of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie were in full swing and no one wanted to take a chance with an expedition which involved travelling over vast distances into the unknown interior of Australia. Harding even went to Europe to try to find backers but failed and returned to Australia where he died shortly afterwards. Lasseter, for reasons which have never been explained, left to live in America and nothing was heard of him until May 1930 when, at the height of the Depression, he walked into the Pitt Street offices of the Austalian Workers' Union in sydney and asked to see the union's president, John Bailey.
A photograph of Lasseter's grave taken by Bob Buck in 1932
At that time, union offices were besieged by out-of-work people looking for jobs or hand-outs. But Lasseter did not fit the usual image and was not shown the door. In fact, after an hour or so he was shown into Bailey's office. The first impression Bailey had of Lasseter was that he was of a well-dressed worker. But he did not talk like a worker and as Bailey listened he became more and more interested in the tale of the gold reef. Lasseter was convinced the mining of his reef would cure the country's economic problems and at the assayed amounts Lasseter claimed for his find, the reef itself was valued at around 60 million pounds in 1930 or more than 2 billion dollars in today's monetary terms. But Bailey was a cautious man, particularly as tall story tellers were not unusual in the Depression. He assembled a group of miners and unionists who questioned Lasseter closely about the reef. No one could shake him from his story and even though he had not been back to the reef for thirty years, Lasseter was convinced he could find the reef again. Bailey even spoke to Arthur Blakeley, who as federal Minister for Home Affairs had responsibility for the Northern Territory. He could find nothing to dispute or contradict Lasseter's story.
Bailey acknowledged there were risks involved but decided it was worth the union's while to back an expedition to rediscover the reef. Public company called the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company (CAGEC) was floated and the $5000 available scrip was sold out in twenty-four hours - a remarkable event in the middle of the Depression. Now preparation for the expedition got under way in earnest but here the first seeds of later trouble were planted. In their enthusiasm for the project, the planners virtually ignored Lasseter and set up a large expedition which included an aircraft for surveillance work. Lasseter wanted a small party using camels and fought against the plane, arguing that there was nowhere it could land. The city-born planners were more interested in Errol Coote, a journalist and pilot, who convinced them to overtook such trivial details as how the plane would refuel, of indeed he could get it down in one piece in the middle of the scrub. Lasseter wanted to use camels but when a heavy, six-wheel drive truck became available the company jumped at the chance of using it and once again Lasseter's wishes were ignored or overruled.
By June the expedition was ready and the seven-man party arrived at Alice Springs to set off on what was hailed as the best-equipped exploration into the centre of Australia. The company had chosen Alice Springs because it assumed it was the closest rail link to the reef. Again the lack of communication with Lasseter was to have fatal consequences. Lasseter, in all his meetings, had expressed great confidence in finding his reef again if he travelled from the west, the same direction he and Harding had gone when they had rediscovered it thirty years previously. Travelling from the west he knew the landmarks and the lay of the land. but travelling into the bush from the east was a different proposition, and one which Lasseter was not happy about. Nevertheless, the company decided to start at Alice Springs and why a man of Lasseter's verbal ability (he had, after all, talked everyone into the expedition in the first place) did not protest more is just one of the mysteries surrounding the Lasseter legend. And so on 21 July 1930 the CAGEC expedition headed out of Alice Springs under the direction of Fred Blakeley, Arthur Blakeley's brother, with Lasseter himself being given the somewhat demeaning title of guide. Travelling in the heavy truck the expedition headed west with Blakeley keeping close to the MacDonnell ranges so that the travelling was not too rough and the team could get water.
Only 200 kilometres out of Alice Springs Lasseter's uneasiness with the expedition erupted into the open confrontation with Blakeley. Lasseter wanted to go south-west but the leader insisted on continuing on a due west course. This led the team into the mulga and a track had to be cut for the truck, slowing the progress of the expedition down to a crawl. Meanwhile Coote and his plane had landed at Yai Yai where the expedition had cleared a strip in the rough terrain. He had gone there so Lasseter could be taken up for an aerial view of the area but while testing the airstrip the plane nicked a tree and the flight was postponed. The expedition then pushed on towards the township of Ilbilla while Coote repaired the plane so he could join them later. With the plane ready, Coote set off again but the airstrip was again too much for him and this time the plane's contact with a tree was much more serious - the plane was destroyed and Coote was lucky to escape with his life. When the plane failed to arrive for the rendezvous at Ilbilla, Blakeley drove back to the airstrip to investigate for none of the expedition's radios was working. He found the wrecked plane and a note from Coote who had set off back to try to get another plane. Blakeleyh decided he could not wait for this and set off in the truck due west towards the Kintore /Range near the Western Australian border. Now the animosity between Lasseter and Blakeley became even more obvious with Lasseter claiming that his sights showed they were some 240 kilometres from where he believed the reef to be. Blakeley retorted with a claim that Lasseter did not know how to use navigating devices. He then proceeded to punch Lasseter to the ground.
Bob Buck, who found the body of Lasseter after receiving advice from Pitjantjatjara tribesmen
The two men continued to argue and finally it was decided to return to Ilbilla where Coote arrived in August with another plane. Lasseter was at last taken aloft to view the land they were in. He believed he had found the area and the expedition set off again but was thwarted as much by the constant arguing between the two men as by the huge sand dunes, the result of of a long drought, which blocked their path. Again the team turned back and at Ilbilla Blakeley decided enough was enough and called the expedition off. Lesseter, however, decided to continue the search - this time more on his terms. He teamed up with Paul Johns, a cameleer who had wandered into the expedition's camp and befriended the CAGEC team. The new arrangement suited Lasseter because camels were his preferred mode of desert transport and he had always wanted a small expedition which could move quickly rather than a large unwieldy one.
In mid-September the two men set off for the Petermann Ranges but the continuing drought slowed the progress by forcing them to divert to waterholes. Nevertheless, they travelled about 32 kilometres a day, good progress compared with the truck. But still the drought beat them and with the camels suffering from heat and thirst they returned to Ilbilla. From here Johns set off to get fresh camels and supplies from Alice Springs while Lasseter decided to set out on his own. Aware of the dangers of the outback, he gave Johns letters to the CAGEC detailing the route he was going to take. From here on Lasseter's movements are a mystery although a number of people claimed to have seen him. One of these witn4esses said that Lasseter had arrived in the Rawlinson Ranges and had failed to tether his camels which had all his supplies on their backs. The camels fled and although he realised it was impossible to catch them. Lasseter followed them. He found supplies which had fallen from their backs and, using these as his only food base, sought shelter in a nearby cave where he could see any search party sent to look for him.
And a search party of sorts there was. The CAGEC had ordered Coote and his new plane to hunt for Lasseter but by early January the plane was reported missing and after a ten day search by Air Force planes it was located a wreck, but with no loss of life. The CAGEC, which had ploughed so much into the search for Lasseter's reef, now made no attempt to ask the Air Force to extend its search and look for the lost man after the wrecked plane had been found. It could be argued that the company was counting its losses, although the animosity between Blakeley and Lasseter could suggest other explanations. And so towards the end of January, the world had given Lasseter up as dead. In fact it seems he was still living, but only just, sheltering in a cave and hoping his rescuers would arrive. It is believed that by this stage he was so weak he could not look after himself and was surviving only because Aborigines nearby took pity on him. by the end of the month he realised help was not coming and decided to make one last attempt to save himself by setting out with his Aboriginal helper s to crawl to Mt Olga. But two days later he collapsed and died on the bank of a creek and was buried by his helpers.
There were some, however, who questioned that he had died but believed that he had found his reef and, rather than share its huge wealth, had disappeared. But the evidenced seems to suggest that the diary found in the cave where he had spent many days was written by Lasseter and that he died a few days after leaving the cave. In fact a grave was found, although some experts say the body in it was not his. The claims in the diary fragments that he had rediscovered the reef are almost certain, if genuinely written by him, to be no more than a dying man's attempt to justify himself. No gold has ever been discovered at the fairly specifically described site. What is undisputed is that Lasseter disappeared at this time and that the attempt to rediscover the reef was a failure. So what is the answer? Was there never a reef at all, as Fred Blakely believed? This is increasingly the accepted explanation but it is just as logical to point to the defects of the search expedition, and to factors of age and geographical conditions.
Firstly, Lasseter was travelling in a different direction from that which he had been following some thirty years previously when he had found the reef. In addition, landmarks in the desert change constantly and in thirty years most of the vegetation would have completely changed, as would have the sand dunes. Another factor was that the expedition was led by a city person who clashed constantly with Lasseter, probably exacerbating his confusion over not being able to locate landmarks or other distinguishing features. When he set off alone he had to face problems of age and weakness. He was now more than fifty, and he had been travelling in the desert on the expedition, with Johns and by himself, for months. He weakened quickly and it is believed towards the end he was beset with dysentery. Whether or not the despairing diary entry about approaching death is genuine, it is unlikely that Lasseter came to a happy end.
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