Sam Hazlett and the Search for Lasseter’s Reef
by Jim McKeague
Note: The complete text of this work is below. For the notes to any chapter, scroll down to the end of that chapter. All maps will be found in this website’s Map Gallery. All illustrations will be found in this website’s Picture Gallery.
Chapter 1 – The Attack
With five camels, the three men had crossed the border of Western Australia in the Tomkinson Ranges and reached Mount Davies in the north-west of South Australia. They were headed for Oodnadatta to purchase stock, intending to overland them back to the West. But this was more than a droving trip. The three were also prospectors, and gold was the more immediate goal.
Just near Mount Davies were mining claims pegged by a man named Cockrum in 1901. Cockrum was an associate of William Earle, the man who in the 1890s had supposedly found an “Aladdin’s cave” of gold in the ranges near Mount Davies. Now, in December 1904, Sam Hazlett (aged almost thirty-three), Charlie McCart (twenty-four) and part-Aboriginal Bob Sullivan were here in these remote mountains checking out the country around Cockrum’s claims.
On the evening of December 19, 1904, the three travellers camped about half a kilometre from a gnamma hole (water hole in rock) in a deep mountain gorge. Bob Sullivan went looking for one of the camels which had wandered away. Sam and Charlie, tired of waiting for him, took the other camels to the rock hole for water. Sam set up the canvas water trough and then stooped to dip water from the pool. From unseen hands on the cliffs above, a shower of spears suddenly hurtled down.
The first spear struck Sam at the back of his shoulder, plunging deeply ten or twelve centimetres into his body and piercing his right lung. The second struck in close proximity to the first, just missing his spine and travelling down his back beside the backbone just beneath the skin. Sam was trying to reach for the revolver in a pouch on his belt when a third spear went clean through his right arm below the elbow. Struggling, hampered by the spears, Sam at last succeeded in drawing the revolver and joined Charlie in firing at the spearmen. Their bullets struck three of the attackers, and as Sam was struggling to reach the .44 rifle which was leaning against a nearby tree the other tribesmen turned and ran.
The spearheads were barbed in the same manner as fishhooks, and could not be simply withdrawn. Sam and Charlie pulled the entire length of the two and a half metre shaft through Sam’s arm to free him of that spear. With a pocket knife Charlie cut along the flesh covering the spearhead going down Sam’s back and removed it comparatively easily. The third spear was a different matter entirely. Sam backed up to a mulga tree and Charlie wedged the shaft into a fork to prevent the imbedded spearhead from moving. Then Charlie twisted and broke off most of the spear length. They were about to try heading towards the camp when Bob Sullivan, who had heard the shots and quickly thrown a saddle on the camel he had fetched, came racing up to them.
Back at the camp, from the medicine chest Charlie took out the surgical kit which contained lancet and forceps with which to cut out the spearhead. The barbs of such spears are lashed to the spear shafts with kangaroo sinews, and then sealed over with spinifex gum. With Sam trying to give directions, Charlie thrust the lancet deep into the wound and cut the kangaroo sinews while Bob held the barbs in the forceps. They extracted the barbs and took out the broken-off spear end. Charlie cleaned up the wounds as best he could using a “carbolic and cocaine oil” from the medicine chest. No doctor could have done better than this young, resourceful bushman out in the middle of nowhere. By the time the incredible operation was finished, Sam had collapsed into unconsciousness.
Judging their campsite unsafe, Charlie and Bob made a stretcher by thrusting saplings through the sleeves of their coats and the legs of their trousers and carried Sam to safety. Even so, that night they had to repel an attempted stealthy attack on their camp. For days Sam lay in a coma, the only sign of life being a pulsation at the point of entry of one of the spears. Then he awoke weak from lack of nourishment and loss of blood. Charlie took a shotgun and fired it into a flock of budgerigars, the scattering pellets bringing down a number of birds. They were cooked up to make a soup for Sam.
The three men had already travelled some 800 kilometres from Laverton, the nearest outpost of civilization in Western Australia. They figured it was about 320 kilometres to Oodnadatta. Really, even in a straight line, it was almost twice that. Sam wanted to push ahead, but Charlie, though the younger of the two men, took charge. He refused, preferring to retrace their known track and return to Laverton. At that moment, none of the three expected that Sam could survive his terrible predicament.
Charlie and Bob cut saplings and made up a stretcher which could be fastened between two camels. With Sam lying in this litter, the camel train headed back into Western Australia. For many days Sam lay, barely clinging to life. Then he rallied and, in one of the great survival stories of the Australian bush, by the time they reached Laverton he could walk and looked little the worse for his terrible experience. He knew, though, that his lung was damaged. On arrival, there was no doctor in town, so they took him to a chemist who filled his dreadful spear wounds with sulphur drugs.
Sam seemed to recover speedily from his terrible injuries. Only a few weeks later, in late February 1905, Sam was in Perth to catch a steamship east in order to purchase the stock he had arranged to buy.
However, for years Sam had a dreadful cough.1
Sam Hazlett was my great uncle. Sam’s older sister Margaret in 1895 married police Sub-Inspector John McKeague. Born in 1902, their second son, John Hazlett McKeague (known as “Jack”), was my father. We kids were brought up on stories of my dad’s uncle. As Jack grew up he often visited the Hazlett properties at Walgett and Mudgee in New South Wales, and saw a great deal of his hero, his Uncle Sam. As a boy he was fascinated by Sam’s spear wounds. He could sink his thumb into the great hole in Sam’s back. He listened, breathless, as Sam wove stories of seeking gold in Western Australian deserts, of Aborigines who approached white prospectors at water holes, seemingly unarmed, but secretly dragging spears, gripped by their toes, through the spinifex grass; then, when within spear-throwing distance, reaching down and hurling them at the intruders.
Sam, my dad told me, had “gold fever.” Like many others, Sam was convinced that much gold, precious stones, and valuable metals were still to be found in Western and Central Australia. He was especially interested in the area around the Warburton Ranges. He had done many prospecting trips in the past, and planned to do more. When Jack was in his late teens, Sam invited him to accompany him on future trips. Jack wanted to go, but his father, Sub-Inspector John, said, “No! That fellow will get you killed!”
- The story of the attack and Sam’s survival has been told many times over the years, and details often vary. This account has been put together from published articles and family sources (both the Hazlett and the McCart families), and is as accurate as is now possible. See The West Australian, Perth, February 3, 1905, p. 4, and The Register, Adelaide, February 23, 1905, p. 6 for early accounts.
Chapter 2 – Sam’s Early Days
Samuel Alexander Hill Hazlett was born at Fryer’s Creek (now known as Fryerstown), a goldfield just near Castlemaine, Victoria, on January 12, 1872.1 His father, also named Sam, later brought his family to a property named “Craigmore” about sixteen kilometres from Walgett, New South Wales,where he (the father) was in the 1890s a respected pillar of the community, a Justice of the Peace, and Returning Officer for the Barwon.2
A photo taken at Craigmore but undated shows Sam and his sister Annie riding on horseback at the property’s stockyards with cattle, sheep and horses. Sam had a wide ranging upbringing in the country and could turn his hand to anything in the bush. At various times in his life he contracted to sink wells, operated a timber mill at Lightning Ridge where he provided all the timber for the district’s first hotel, and was well known in racing circles as a talented amateur rider. But Sam’s passion was gold. Everything else was just work to earn a living while he sought his El Dorado.
My father told me that Sam was always seeking Lasseter’s reef and believed it could exist. But that is an over-simplification of the situation. Lasseter and his reef were generally unheard of before 1930. Long before that, prospectors were searching in what is now called “Lasseter Country,” picking up exciting gold specimens and starting rumours of rich strikes. As far as is known, Sam Hazlett and Harry Lasseter never met. But what is fascinating is that they were both in the same place, at the same time, looking for the same thing, and their destinies intersected in curious ways.
Sam had travelled to Western Australia in the rush to Coolgardie, which had begun in 1892. The young Sam, together with two other prospectors, Harry Swintzer (Swincer?) and a man named Kirkpatrick, discovered the gold in the Cosmo-Newbury Hills north of Laverton in the 1890s. The explorer-prospector Carr-Boyd is usually given the credit for this gold strike. However, the well-known explorer Frank Hann in a press interview in Kalgoorlie in 1908 made it clear that, although Carr-Boyd deserved credit for persisting in developing that goldfield, Carr-Boyd had learned there was gold there from Harry Swintzer, and the strike had been made over ten years before by Swintzer, Kirkpatrick and Sam Hazlett. So already in the 1890s the young Sam was wandering Western Australia on his quest for gold.3
Many years later Sam told of how he had joined in most of the early rushes, Kanowna, Kurnalpi, Lake Darlot, Hawks Nest, and many others.
“I dollied 1 oz. stone at Lake Darlot, but there was not nearly enough of it,” he said.
At a spot near Bardoc he obtained really rich stone, but because it cost £3 per ounce for crushing at the Talisman battery Sam walked away.
“If I had time and money I might do worse than re-pegging and reworking some of the more promising of the many shows I’ve opened, but at my time of life I must succeed in a large way, or not at all. That’s why I’m after the big stuff,” said Sam in 1936.
In 1900 Sam, beginning from Mount Morgans near Laverton, Western Australia, where he had a pastoral run, did an overland trip to the family home at Walgett, New South Wales. He travelled from Mount Morgans via Bardoc to Kalgoorlie where he purchased a strong sulky ̶ a horse-drawn carriage consisting of little else but a seat and a large pair of wheels. Accompanied by a prospector named Reid and an Aborigine known only as Tarpot, and with three horses, he set out from Kalgoorlie leaving the beaten track at Lake Cowan. It was rough going to Fraser Range where heavy timber greatly delayed their progress. Huge fallen trees were sometimes so great a barrier that they had to lift the sulky bodily over them. They passed through Balladonia and Eucla and crossed into South Australia, hoping to meet a coasting steamer at Fowlers Bay. However, they would have had to wait a fortnight, so they continued on through the Gawler Range to Port Augusta. From there they took a train to Broken Hill. Purchasing fresh horses, they continued on via Wilcannia to Walgett. Riding through New South Wales they had to feed their horses, for a severe drought had left the land empty of both grass and livestock. The entire trip had taken nearly three months. They had used ten horses altogether.4
After a family Christmas at Walgett, Sam collected a mob of sixty horses to take back to the West. A fine bushman, he now became an overlander. He drove the horses down the Barwon and Darling Rivers past Bourke to Wilcannia and Broken Hill. Crossing into South Australia, he passed through the radium field at Olary, on to Mannahill, and then travelled across to Port Augusta and Denial Bay (Ceduna). He stopped briefly at Penong where he stayed with the Murray family. While there he made a great impression on little Elsie Murray and her sister. More than thirty years later, little Elsie, now a married woman in Adelaide, wrote a letter to Sam which he kept for the rest of his life. It is the most charming document in the Hazlett papers that have come down to us and was addressed simply to Mr Sam Hazlett, Prospector, Perth, W.A.:
Dear Mr Hazlett,
I wonder if this will find you and if you are the same who over 30 years ago travelled horses through to the West, stayed at Penong with the Murrays – gave my sister and I a horse named ‘Bordeau’ – If you are the same how strange – for years we have believed you dead – speared by Natives and died of wounds. The cutting from the news was a surprise I felt I must write and find out so I hope you will reply to this … I will wait your reply before writing more. Then should you be the same old friend and care for more news I will be pleased to write and tell you …
Elsie Murray Dawson
From Penong and Fowlers Bay, Sam and his horses went on to Eucla, over Frazer Range, past Cardunia Rocks, and up the western side of Lake Carey to Mount Morgans. The journey had taken six months. Sam never lost a single horse, just gave away Bordeau.
At another time Sam collected a mob of choice Clydesdales by attending auction sales in and around Crystal Brook near Port Pirie, South Australia. A number of farms were being sold and he obtained these animals at very reasonable prices. Though the season was very dry, Sam eased the Clydesdales back to Western Australia, arriving after six months and selling them for large sums. Both these trips were his own ventures and proved to be enormously profitable.
Another droving trip saw Sam bring 1,800 sheep west. The weather was showery so feed was plentiful. There were few losses and the sheep arrived in excellent condition, again a financially successful trip. On these overland trips he was not only seeking the best route for droving, but also keeping an eye out for good pastoral land, and of course seeking gold.5
- No documentation is readily available for Sam Hazlett’s birthdate. January 12, 1872 comes from his granddaughter, Lyn Moffat, from memory.
- The Manaro Mercury, May 19, 1899, p. 2
- When reporting this interview the Kalgoorlie newspapers misnamed Sam as “Sam Halliday” and had to correct the story later. See Kalgoorlie Western Argus, January 14, 1908, p. 18; and Kalgoorlie Miner, January 11, 1908, p. 4
- Daily News, Perth, January 3, 1901, p. 3
- The accounts of Sam’s overlanding trips and early prospecting destinations are from the Scone Advocate, February 28, 1936, p. 3
Chapter 3 – Earle’s Cave of Gold
In 1895 an Adelaide syndicate had been formed to send prospectors into the ranges in the North West of South Australia. One of these prospectors was a Captain William Earle who, after quarrelling with his mate James Lamb, had gone off on his own and then returned to Adelaide claiming that the country up there was highly promising and he intended to prospect the area further. It seems that in telling his tale he showed a bottle of rich gold specimens which he had carried with him in order to show the local Aboriginal tribes in the hope that they could guide him to similar stones. The specimens came from the Western Australian goldfields, but somehow Adelaide gossip transformed the story into a tale which had Earle credited with discovering a “cave of gold and copper” near Mount Davies. There are many variations of the story, but these rumours were the source of the tale of “an Aladdin’s cave of gold” discovered by Earle in the general area of the Tomkinson Ranges.
Earle himself developed cancer of the eye and could never return to prospect the area further. But he provided a map to the prospector Cockrum and his party who pegged several leases near Mount Davies in 1901. Cockrum and a man named Undler were speared by Aborigines in the Mann Ranges. Undler, who was an Afghan camel driver, died. Cockrum recovered. Cockrum and his son, together with Ted and Arthur Worman and a new Afghan camel driver named Abdur Ackman, went back to the area. Abdur Ackman, apparently not believing that his countryman had been killed by Aborigines, took it on himself to avenge Undler’s death. He attacked his fellow travellers in the same spot in the Mann Ranges, killing Ted Worman. He then fled into the desert and he himself perished by thirst. So Earle’s “cave of gold” was developing an evil reputation, and variations on the story became widespread.1
To this day, this legendary “cave of gold” is as much a mystery as “Lasseter’s reef.” Old miners thought it a possibility, describing such a prospect as a “vhug” formation that at first sight looks like a grotto of gold which crumbles off when touched. They would beat it on bullock hides.2
Dr Herbert Basedow, a very well-known explorer, believed this cave existed and in 1931 claimed to have come into possession of a map giving the exact locality and a sketch of the cave. He fully intended to go out in search of it, he said.3
Even later, in 1936, Mr F.C. Siekmann, the assistant coroner in Adelaide, told how his father had arranged to send Cockrum and his party out with Earle’s map. Mr Siekmann also said that he himself had spoken to Earle about the find, and Earle had said, “The gold is there. It will be found some day. I would not gain anything by fabricating a story about this reef.”4
In 1904 Sam Hazlett was curious about the Earle stories and wished to examine Cockrum’s leases and the surrounding country. His next overlanding trip was planned to sweep much farther north than his first journey. As a companion he chose prospector and drover Charles James McCart, a quiet bushman who was so retiring and self-effacing that later the newspapers knew scarcely anything of him. Many reports called him “H. McCart,” gave his age as twenty-two instead of twenty-four, and gave no details of the vital part he played in the spearing drama. But Sam was to owe his life to the quiet efficiency and resourcefulness of Charlie McCart. Charlie’s nickname amongst Aborigines was “Wanda,” meaning “Young One.” Charlie’s son, George, now eighty-eight, tells me his father never spoke much about his adventurous life, and information had to be dragged out of him. George’s wife once asked Charlie if he had ever been bitten by a snake.
“Oh yes,” was all he said.
“How did it happen?”
“I was in bed with my arm hanging over the side and it bit my finger.”
“What did you do?”
“I got up and killed it.”
“I cut open the wound and sucked it until it ran clear.”
“What happened then?”
“I went back to bed.”
Charlie at one time worked as a drover for cattle baron Sid Kidman. Charlie’s brother, Tom McCart, was a huge, powerful man, a well-known blacksmith in Kalgoorlie. Kidman was so impressed with Tom’s strength that he offered £1,000 to anyone in Australia who could out-strength Tom McCart. A visiting American wrestler heard of this and fronted up to Tom. Tom walked to a bench, lifted up a heavy anvil, and carried it over to another bench where he set it down. The wrestler laughed, thinking the anvil was a fake. He walked up to the bench and tried to lift it but only succeeded in dragging it across the bench whereupon it fell and broke both his legs. You won’t find this story in the old newspapers. The McCart brothers were a quiet lot.5
The third member of the party was Bob Sullivan, a part-Aborigine from Queensland who had come over to Western Australia with Sam in the 1890s. Sam, Charlie and Bob left the Laverton district on November 5, 1904, heading for the Townsend Range. Passing by way of Mulgabiddy Creek, Mount Fleming and Tierney Springs, the party cut a track made shortly before by the explorer Frank Hann which took them up to the Townsend Range, Giles’ Tank and Fort Mueller. About 130 kilometres from the Townsend Range they came upon a dead camel which must have been one which Frank Hann had been forced to leave behind. It had evidently been stoned to death by local Aborigines, for a heap of stones lay around the carcass. Near this spot a pack saddle used by Hann was found, and the Hazlett party found this useful, leaving in its place a riding saddle.
Always seeking gold, Sam when near Mount Fleming and Mount Black had encountered auriferous country, but he said later he did not think it worth prospecting. Between the Townsend Range and the South Australian border he found excellent pastoral land. Near Skirmish Hill his party went through a plain some sixteen kilometres wide covered in Mitchell grass and cotton bush which really impressed him. Water seemed no problem in this newly discovered grassland, being available by very shallow digging. But they also passed through much rocky country and one stony pass almost five kilometres in length had a very damaging effect on the feet of the camels.
Lured on eastward by Cockrum and Earle’s story of gold near Mount Davies, the party crossed the South Australian border. On this journey they had seen many Aboriginal signal fires, and knew the ranges contained large numbers of natives. Frank Hann had a spear thrown at him in these ranges, and Sam knew of other parties who had been out in this area and had been attacked. On previous overland trips he had seen Aborigines, most of them friendly, but on one occasion they had thrown spears into his camp.
However, on this trip, the first that he knew there were any natives in the vicinity of Mount Davies was when he felt their barbed spears plunge into his body.6
- This account is based on Michael Terry’s attempt to find the true story of Earle’s “cave of gold,” published in The Advertiser, Adelaide, December 12, 1931, p. 8
- The Mail, Adelaide, December 29, 1931, p. 22
- News, Adelaide, May 21, 1931, p. 4
- The Mail, Adelaide, February 15, 1936, p. 6
- Personal communication with George McCart and Neil McCart, September 2015
- The West Australian, Perth, February 3, 1905, p. 4; The Register, Adelaide, February 23, 1905, p. 6; The Observer, Adelaide, March 4, 1905, p. 38. Minor details vary in these and other reports.
Chapter 4 – A Semi-Invalid
Sam was featured in newspapers around Australia for his amazing story of survival, but he was far from being a well man after this. From time to time his old wounds troubled him and he could not lie down comfortably to sleep. He would prop up his body almost in a sitting up position. He consulted many doctors over the years but to no avail. Because he coughed badly they concluded he had “consumption,” as tuberculosis was called at that time.
He returned to the family property, Craigmore, at Walgett, New South Wales, and was recuperating there when he met Nina Taylor, the young governess on a neighbouring property. They married in 1908 and at first lived at Craigmore. Their first child, Margaret (known as “Peggy”), was born there in 1909. But also in 1909 Sam’s father died and Craigmore was sold. Sam and Nina went briefly to Sydney where their second child, Sam Junior (known as “Chub”), was born at Chatswood in 1910.
Soon they moved to Dalwallinu in Western Australia where they took up farming land. Sam was never a man to stay at home. A newspaper columnist named O’Brehoun, writing in the late 1930s, said that he paired up with Sam in 1911 and they prospected the Nullagine River east of Marble Bar. He described Sam as a typical bushman, not just a prospector but a self-appointed explorer, dingo trapper and kangaroo shooter. O’Brehoun wrote that he often told Sam he would never have a home or a wife because he was a nomad by disposition, never resting long in one district, always submitting to the call of the desert lands and lonely wild places. It seems Sam never told his mate he had a wife and a family at home.1
Four more children were born in these years: Jean, Nina May (“Bubs”), Irene (“Billie”), and lastly Jim who was born in 1920. Nina (“Nin” as she was called) found life at Dalwallinu difficult with six children and Sam often away prospecting or droving. In 1921 they decided to go back east to Mudgee where Nina would be closer to her own people, and Sam bought a farm at Eurunderee called “Willow Vale.” Sam’s son Chub had become a working man by now, though not yet in his teens, and he soon grew to be an accomplished bushman. Although Sam at this time was a farmer, he could never shake off the gold bug, and in his spare time he prospected at Gulgong.
One day in 1926, in a great paroxysm of coughing and haemorrhaging, Sam spat out the tip of a spear barb. The doctors said he could not have lived for 22 years with a piece of spear barb deep inside him, but X-rays showed clearly the scar on his lung. Now the problem was to stop the haemorrhaging, for a major blood vessel to the lung was pierced. For two weeks Nina never left the veranda of the Braeholme Private Hospital in Mudgee as Dr Matheson and the nurses battled to stem Sam’s bleeding. They gave him the objectionable diet of teaspoon after teaspoon of salt to eat, theorizing that the salt would follow the blood, block the leakage, and let the lung heal. Because of, or in spite of, this treatment, Sam pulled through. The bleeding stopped. His health improved, markedly. So did his hankering for wandering the deserts of Western and Central Australia.2
- Richmond River Herald, NSW, January 26, 1937, p. 4
- Truth, Western Australia, June 22, 1930, p. 9
Chapter 5 – Back to the West
In 1929 Sam Hazlett sold Willow Vale, loaded his family and possessions into a Dodge Six car and trailer, and set off overland to return to Western Australia. Only Peggy remained in New South Wales. The road across the Nullarbor was barely a track, and they went from station to station. The journey to Perth took a month, and the family settled into a new home in the Perth suburb of Bayswater.1
Sam took advantage of a new scheme of the Western Australian Government. They wanted to kick-start the state’s mining economy by encouraging experienced prospectors and miners with financial aid. Before the year 1929 was out, accompanied by another experienced prospector named Wally Gilmour, his own son Sam Jr (Chub) who was now nineteen, and two Aboriginal helpers, Sam with a string of eight camels was headed for the Warburton Ranges district. This was the area where he knew there were good signs of gold. He had told Mr A.L. Brown, manager of the Golden Downs Pastoral Company which owned land north-east of Laverton, that if ever he felt well enough he would return there. Mr Brown warned him that certain natives had said if ever he came back they would “get him.”2 Sam’s party left Kalgoorlie on November 17, 1929, expecting to be away at least six months.
This trip involved prospecting the Warburton, Blackstone and Tomkinson Ranges as far as the South Australian border, and northward for some 120 kilometres beyond Warburton. As well as searching for gold, Sam confirmed that good pastoral land existed in the area and he decided to take up a large lease there. There had been a seven year drought, and according to Chub the drought broke when they were in the Tomkinson Range. A huge cloudburst sent water flooding across the country, sweeping away a section of the Trans-Continental Railway.3
Back in Laverton, Sam and Chub built a “road-making machine of the drag variety.” It consisted of a camel dray with broad wheels and a huge beam almost three metres long bolted across the front. Drawn by nine camels, this knocked down the mulga as it moved forward, and created wheel tracks. When the track was cleaned up (Sam had Aborigines burn the broken mulga afterwards) this allowed motor traffic to travel all the way to the ranges.4 The first 160 kilometres of the road from Laverton to Warburton was already made, but Sam and Chub had sought out the best route for the remaining 480 kilometres or so, and now they turned it into a road.
As they travelled, they cleaned up the soaks and waterholes along the route, and sank wells so that later travellers would have permanent water at regular intervals. Good permanent water was in the well Sam sank at the junction of Elder Creek and Hughes Creek. His wells on Elder Creek were an important water supply for the pastoral lease he pegged out. All this work he did at his own expense so that he would have a proper road to his grazing land.
The soaks and waterholes were valuable resources to the local Aboriginal tribes. Sam made it clear to them that these and the wells he dug were for their use also. The natives preferred a water source where they could climb down to the water, and viewed the wells with suspicion. On one occasion they attempted to use one of Sam’s wells, and because she was unfamiliar with the straight sided pit an Aboriginal woman fell in. There was a great fuss, and they pronounced the well as “No good pfella.” But regarding other wells where Sam had provided a chain and bucket to wind up the water, and a ladder in the well so that they could climb down to it, they were pleased, calling this “Good pfella.” Such extra features were added in the hope that the Aborigines would not burn out the timber-lined wells in disgust.5
His co-operative efforts in providing water for all-comers earned Sam great respect amongst Aborigines, and many of them came to know him fondly as “Old Goonji” (“Old Four-eyes”) because of his spectacles. Fifty years later, in the 1980s, Dick Kimber, who spent much time with Aborigines in Central Australia, wrote of Sam Hazlett still being remembered by the name “Kunki,” apparently a variant of “Goonji.”6
Sam and Chub much preferred to be on good terms with the local Aborigines wherever they went rather than on a war footing, and their provision of water meant that they had good co-operation from local men who had valuable skills that could help them. They admired the tribesmen’s incredible eyesight. Many years later Chub told how natives could spot a kangaroo from almost five kilometres away. They made use of this talent, employing Aborigines to seek for specks of gold in dry creek beds, for those men could see glints of gold that white men could not see. Then they would have them track the gold upstream, to where the specks had washed down from a lode. That was the place for pay dirt!
In December 1930 Sam began hearing rumours of two white men having been speared in the border ranges. His Aboriginal helpers constantly heard news from the local tribes in the areas through which they travelled, and stories came to him of the murders. At first he (and others, notably the explorer Michael Terry) dismissed the stories as fanciful, but later Sam came to believe the story was true. There were quite a few pairs of prospectors in the area around this time: Sam and Chub, Brown and Brumby, Wells and Domeyer, and Johanson and Smith, to name a few. Johanson and his mate (some sources give the mate’s name as Fabian and others as Smith) were heading for the Rawlinson Range, and we will have more to say about them later. Most of these parties heard the rumours and suspected it was one of the other parties who had struck trouble.
At the same time as Sam and Chub were pushing into the Western Australian border country from the south-west, another prospector was coming into that border country from the north-east with a large, expensively equipped expedition, and he was about to become famous. His name was Harry Lasseter.
- There is some disagreement in the information the family has about the dates Sam moved between WA and NSW in the years 1905 to 1929. The dates given above are from a copy of a letter written by Sam’s daughter “Bubs” to a Mrs Morris who had enquired about the family’s history. This copy is now in the possession of Bubs’ daughter, Lyn Moffat.
- Chronicle, Adelaide, July 16, 1931, p. 45
- Transcript of an interview with Sam Hazlett (Jr) conducted by John Thomson on May 21, 1966. Battye Library Oral History Programme, OH8, Library Board of WA.
- Sunday Times, Perth, May 17, 1931, p. 11; Western Mail, Perth, May 30, 1935, p. 50
- Sunday Times, Perth, August 23, 1931, p. 1
- R.G. Kimber, Aboriginal History, Vol. 6(1), 1982, pp. 49-60; corrected in Vol. 10, 1986, p.151
Chapter 6 – The Lasseter Story
In 1930, prospector Harry Lasseter approached the Australian Workers’ Union in Sydney, asking them to use their influence with the Federal Labor Government to gain assistance in financing an expedition to Central Australia. John Bailey, AWU president, listened as Lasseter told how he had found a rich gold reef near the Western Australian border in 1897, and of his unsuccessful attempts to return and develop it over the thirty-three years since then. Bailey discussed this with a few prospector friends who quizzed Lasseter and decided that the story seemed genuine. Bailey decided not to approach the government, but rather to form a company of his own (the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company Ltd, or CAGE) and back Lasseter. Money was quickly raised, and an elaborate expedition was mounted, equipped with a special, all-terrain, six-wheeled Thornycroft truck, and a light plane for reconnaissance flights. Lasseter had wanted a camel expedition, but the company’s board, flush with funds, wanted the latest technology, and their view prevailed. The expedition set out from Alice Springs in July 1930.
In the field, the leader of the expedition was Fred Blakeley, a brother of Arthur Blakeley, Federal Minister for Home Affairs. Blakeley and Lasseter did not get on. Lasseter was a self-educated, independent man with the eccentricities of a loner. When in conversation he claimed he had designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, other expedition members called him a liar. Yet, to Lasseter, the claim was true. Lasseter had designed a single-arch bridge to span Sydney Harbour long before the present structure was designed by Bradfield, but Lasseter’s proposal was rejected.
Another point of friction was the direction of travel to be taken by the expedition. Lasseter, as guide, wanted to follow the track he had taken in the 1890s, to the south-west of Haast Bluff. Blakeley, as leader, over-ruled him, taking a more northerly route to Ilbilba Soak in the Ehrenberg Range, where the expedition planned to establish a base camp on the permanent water supply.
A third point of friction was Blakeley’s hiring of a local bushman, Fred Colson, and his truck. Lasseter justifiably complained that it had been agreed that only paid up members of the company should travel to the reef. Blakeley was also concerned that several old-timers in Alice Springs had talked to Lasseter and did not believe he had been in Central Australia three decades earlier.
After quite a bit of friction, Blakeley became so suspicious of Lasseter’s story of the reef that he secretly went through Lasseter’s possessions and discovered prospector’s samples of gold. He marked them in a secret way so that he could identify them should Lasseter produce them later and claim that he had just found them. But really, there was no need to be suspicious. Many prospectors, like Captain William Earle, carried such samples to show to Aborigines in new country and ask if they had seen such stones. As leader of a prospecting expedition, Blakeley must have known this.
The “latest technology” was another source of trouble. The trucks bogged repeatedly in sand dunes and broke down. Errol Coote, the pilot of the light plane, wrecked it in an attempted take-off from a bush air-strip. The company hired a second plane which the injured Coote and another pilot, Pat Hall, flew to Ilbilba.
Meanwhile, at Ilbilba, the expedition had tried to push westward with the Thornycroft, but it was unsuitable for the country. When Coote and Hall arrived with the new plane, Hall took Lasseter up for a flight. Flying in a roughly south-westerly direction from Ilbilba for over an hour, Lasseter suddenly became excited, and when back at Ilbilba told Errol Coote he definitely saw his landmarks and the gold reef. To Blakeley, he would only say that the expedition was 241 kilometres (“150 miles” in the measure of those days) too far north. Again the men used the Thornycroft to try to push southward from Ilbilba, but the rough country defeated this attempt also. (Details are in Maps 9A and 9B.)
Blakeley decided the expedition would return to Alice Springs. Lasseter refused to go, insisting on staying and finding his reef. The opportunity to do that was provided by the presence in the area of a dingo scalper, a young German named Paul Johns, and his string of five camels. Johns said he happened to be there because he believed the expedition would need camels, and he was hoping to be hired. Blakeley agreed to hire Johns for two months to accompany Lasseter into the desert while everyone else returned to the Alice. Both Blakeley and Lasseter were glad to see the last of each other. It was a case of two men whose personality traits did not enable them to get on together. However, there was more to it than that.
Lasseter was unhappy with the taking over of his quest by John Bailey and his friends. The prospector had simply asked for the AWU boss to use his influence to obtain a government grant to fund Lasseter’s own camel expedition. But Bailey had formed his own private company and was, in Lasseter’s view, hijacking the gold reef. The deal was that the reef would be pegged in the CAGE Company’s name, and Lasseter would receive a weekly wage while engaged with the expedition, and later only ten per cent of the value of the reef. Lasseter signed a contract with CAGE only because he saw this as the only way he could get out to Central Australia.
On reaching Alice Springs, before heading west with the CAGE expedition Lasseter secretly did a deal with Paul Johns, who had three camels, and with another cameleer named Walter Smith, who provided two quiet riding camels. Lasseter told Johns, Smith, and a mate of Smith’s named Frank Sprigg who paid for some provisions, that they would have shares in the pegging of the reef after Lasseter had disengaged himself from the official CAGE expedition and joined Paul Johns in the desert. It appears Lasseter’s quarrels with the other members of the CAGE field party were deliberately provoked by Lasseter so that he could abandon them and team up with Johns. But Lasseter was clever enough to have Blakeley sign up Paul Johns as an employee of the CAGE Company working under the direction of Lasseter. This gave the added advantage of access to the CAGE food supplies now stored at the base camp at Ilbilba Soak. None of this secret wheeling and dealing was widely known for many years. It was only made public by historian Dick Kimber decades later.1
On returning to Alice Springs, Blakeley reported to the company’s board what he considered had happened, giving his opinion that Lasseter was a liar and that the reef did not exist. Blakeley was promptly ordered to return to Sydney. Not only Lasseter, but members of the Company’s board in Sydney too, were by now suspicious that Blakeley and Colson were conspiring to peg the reef for themselves.
Then Johns reappeared alone at Hermannsburg Mission and Alice Springs with a strange tale. He told Coote that he and Lasseter had travelled to the Petermann Ranges and the Western Australian border, but when close to where the reef was supposedly located the camels could not continue. Lasseter went ahead on foot, returned to the camp after two days, and said he had located the reef and taken samples. When Johns asked Lasseter to show him the samples, Lasseter refused. (Possibly this was because he now regarded Johns as hired help, like Fred Colson, and not a paid-up member of the company. Imagine how this would have infuriated Johns, who believed he had a deal.) Johns called Lasseter a liar. Insulted, Lasseter shaped up for a fist fight. Johns drew his revolver and Lasseter sprang at him. He wrested it from Johns, injuring his own hand in the process, and threw the weapon into the mulga. They camped apart that night, but next day they patched up their quarrel. Because they were almost out of food, they returned to Ilbilba where the expedition had left their stores. Here they parted, Lasseter taking Walter Smith’s two camels and saying he would return to the reef and peg it, and Johns heading for civilization and promising to return with fresh camels and more stores and follow Lasseter’s tracks.
When the board in Sydney heard of this, they did not immediately re-hire Johns (whose two months had expired) to go back to the desert. They ordered Errol Coote, the pilot, to go to Lasseter’s assistance. Coote, now expedition leader, planned to switch his base camp from Ilbilba to Ayers Rock (Uluru). But the ground party struck trouble and was late reaching there. Coote himself damaged the second plane while landing there. A third plane with yet another pilot, Leslie Pittendrigh, accompanied by a mining engineer named Hamre, got lost and was forced to land out of fuel in wild country between Ilbilba and Alice Springs. The air force was called in to search for the lost plane.
The Sydney based board then ordered the expedition’s mechanic, Phil Taylor, to re-hire Paul Johns and go by camel to Lasseter’s assistance. Taylor and Johns were heading towards Ayers Rock when Taylor became ill and was so unwell that Johns had to bring him back to Hermannsburg Mission. No company members of the field party were now available to go to Lasseter’s assistance, so Taylor sought a good bushman to go out. The school teacher at Hermannsburg Mission, Hermann Heinrich, recommended Taylor send out Bob Buck, part owner of a cattle property at Middleton Ponds.
Buck accepted the commission, and with a string of camels and two Aboriginal helpers started out in February 1931. Paid by the week, Buck was in no hurry. He said he tracked Lasseter to the Petermann Ranges, along the Rawlinson Range in Western Australia to Lake Christopher, and then back to the Petermanns. Here local natives showed him where Lasseter had died of dysentery and starvation. Buck buried Lasseter’s decomposing body there at Irving Creek. Many sources, even his death certificate, say that Lasseter’s body was found and buried at Shaw Creek, but Walter Gill’s diary and map clearly demonstrate it was Irving Creek.2 In the 1950s, local Aboriginal men found the spot for the American documentary film maker, Lowell Thomas, who exhumed Lasseter’s bones and took them to Alice Springs for reburial. In the 1970s, the locals again pointed out the original grave site at Irving Creek to Lasseter’s son, Bob, and helped him build a memorial cairn on the spot.3
Bob Buck had another interesting piece of information to tell. He said a letter on Lasseter’s body gave directions to the reef. He had travelled there and found the eastern and western pegs of Lasseter’s claim, but not the northern and southern pegs. There were reefs in the area, but he said he was a stockman and not a prospector so he could not comment on whether or not they were gold-bearing.4
- Kimber, R.G., Man from Arltunga, 2nd edition, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 1996, pp. 86, 87
- Gill, Walter, Petermann Journey, Rigby Ltd, Sydney, 1968, p. 94 and endpapers. Walter Gill was a wealthy tourist who happened to be at Hermannsburg when Buck returned from burying Lasseter. Gill took Buck to Alice Springs to make an official report, and then hired Buck to take him to the Petermann Range straight after that.
- Canberra Times, August 9, 1986, p. 1
- Chronicle, Adelaide, August 6, 1931, p. 48
Chapter 7 – The Blame Game
In late April and early May 1931 when Bob Buck returned to Hermannsburg Mission and Alice Springs he carried with him items of evidence of the dead man’s identity: Lasseter’s false teeth, a nickel plated revolver, and some loose diary pages in the form of letters from Lasseter to his wife. The pencilled letters contained a bombshell, for in them the almost blind (from sandy blight) and starving Lasseter agonized over his inability to understand why he had been abandoned. From that time on the accounts of everyone connected with the CAGE expedition, both in the field and in the Sydney headquarters, are not to be trusted. The expedition members had begun to paint themselves as a group of earnest seekers led astray by the deluded and out of work romancer, Lasseter. Suddenly they found themselves viewed as a blundering, incompetent group who had left Lasseter alone and unsupported not for weeks, but for months, until he had perished miserably in the wilds. Everyone connected with CAGE began blaming everyone else for the tragedy. Every man began to cover his own rear.
John Bailey in Sydney blamed Fred Blakeley for Lasseter’s death. Fred Blakeley’s story was that he had been sacked, and at the same time he savagely accused Lasseter of being a charlatan. Paul Johns, the last white man to see Lasseter alive, altered his story more than once. There were even rumours in Alice Springs that he had murdered Lasseter in the desert.
It was soon apparent that Lasseter, too, had lied. There were differing versions of how and when he had originally found his gold reef. Lasseter had had a troubled childhood, had become involved in an armed robbery as a teenager, and had been placed in a reformatory. He absconded from there on October 14, 1897, which made his story of finding a gold reef in Central Australia in 1897 highly suspect. There can be little doubt that his aim was to cover up his past, thinking that no one would fund an expedition for him if it were known.
So our problem today with the Lasseter story is that almost everyone lied at some time or other for one reason or another. Who can guide us to the truth nowadays?
Blakeley, the original leader of the Lasseter expedition, in a piece of archival film says: “I led the 1930 Lasseter expedition and say there is no reef, that Lasseter is a liar and a fraud, but more I say that he is still alive today. I believe he is still living somewhere in America.”1
Coote, who succeeded Blakeley as leader of the Lasseter expedition, wrote in 1934: “I have endeavoured to frankly admit my suspicions of Lasseter during my association with him, but I now place on record my belief in his story.”2
Then we have Lasseter’s own last words. Lasseter’s “Diary” is largely in the form of letters written to his wife. Some of it was found by Bob Buck on Lasseter’s body, some under Lasseter’s camp fires, and some on a second expedition led by Buck, hidden in the floor of a cave where Lasseter stayed in the final stages of his agony. Partly in notebook form, partly loose pages, as we have it today it is much damaged and obviously not in chronological order. There is much repetition in it. He tells how he went to his gold reef, but when returning his camels bolted and escaped from him, throwing off their loads. He then spent time with local Aborigines who fed him when food was plentiful, but without his own supplies he sickened and knew that he would soon perish. Completely unaware of what was happening with regard to company orders from Sydney, Lasseter blamed Blakeley for his plight.
Some diary extracts:
Why am I abandoned like this, Paul Johns should have showed up with tucker 6 weeks ago. he gave me his word of Honor [sic]. Blakely [sic] assured me relief would be sent if I had not returned 1st November. it is now in January but I have lost count by date. I think about 16th or 18th…
I leave my everlasting curse on Blakely & Jenkins, Blakely for not sending the relief as promised and Jenkins for omitting the Argerol [sic]3…
Darling I’ve pegged the reef and marked the exact locality on the map which is buried in my kit … on the sand hill where the camels bolted ̶ on the East Side of Hill and I photographed the datum peg dated 23rd Dec I can’t understand … support or relief has not been afforded me. I wrote Edwards and also asked Carrington the Govt Resident, to send word to the Company to send me rei … they did not … one with a consolida … iners right but expecte … square … 28 acre … 5 pegs to a block & 8 trenches just figure out the amount of work ne[cessa?]ry there would be 120 … work for … men…
I’ve tried to make you happy & if the Company treat you right you [will?] be rich. the reef is a bonanza & to think that if only Fred Blakely had been guided by me we could have got [there with?] the truck in three …
Of course I was a fool to take this on alone but I relied on Paul Johns overtaking me in 4 to 6 weeks at the outside. He averred that he would overtake me in three weeks & gave his w[ord of?] Honor not to let me … Also it was agreed upon … Fred Blakely when I engaged to go with the camels that if I did not show up again by the … of November that th … would send a man named Johansen to my relief. As I believe he also stumbled on to this identical reef. I had to go right out to Lake Christopher which is 100 miles across the WA border in order to get my bearings then I was a[ble?] to go direct to the reef.4
These entries by Lasseter helped convince Errol Coote that the reef really existed. Coote wrote later: “That he should lie to his children, knowing Death was advancing over the blistering sands, is as inconceivable as the accusation is unjust.”5
To this day, Harry Lasseter’s son, Bob, also believes that his father would not have lied knowing he was about to die. Since 1966 Bob Lasseter has quietly made dozens and dozens of trips to Lasseter’s country searching for his father’s landmarks and the lost gold reef.
Very interesting in the above extracts is Lasseter’s reference to “Johansen.” When Lasseter sent Paul Johns back to Alice Springs for fresh camels, he sent with him a letter to Government Resident Carrington in which he stated that he (Lasseter) would be going out to Lake Christopher to meet a man named Johansen from Boulder in Western Australia. Lasseter also wrote to his wife in Sydney saying, “I am going to ask the company to send Johannsen to my assistance to meet me at Lake Christopher. There are three other parties dogging my tracks.”6
Bob Lasseter, Harry’s son, has in his possession a letter to his father dated July 23, 1930 and signed “W. Johanson” (note the variable spelling) which ends:
I had a letter from Bailey asking me to hold my self in readiness to join your expedition, I will certainly go if requested to do so but I would much sooner go as I did before namely with camels, I know that I could not miss it then. Don’t know just how to pray at present, to wish that you should find it and cough up that five tousands [sic] or that I should be called upon to take a hand and act as guide. Any how time will tell, a few weeks from now and we should know. So wishing you all the best of luck I remain
Yours sinserely [sic]
The rendezvous between Lasseter and Johanson at Lake Christopher did not take place. So, what happened to Johanson?
- This archival film may be seen in Luke Walker’s documentary film, Lasseter’s Bones, Scribble Films, 2012
- Coote, Errol, Hell’s Airport, 2nd edition, Peterman Press, Sydney, April 1934, preface, p. 13
- Argyrol was an antiseptic popular in the first half of the 20th century. John Jenkins, a CAGE director, had substituted another product in the medicine chest which Lasseter thought was ineffective for treatment of his sandy blight.
- Lasseter, Harry, Lasseter’s Diary, facsimile edition, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1986
- Coote, Errol, op. cit., p. 285
- The Daily Guardian, Sydney, January 21, 1931, quoted by the Northern Standard, Darwin, February 20, 1931, p. 3
- Marshall-Stoneking, Billy, Lasseter In Quest of Gold, 2nd edition, Hodder & Stoughton, Rydalmere, NSW, 1989. A photographic copy of this letter appears between pp. 160-161
Chapter 8 – The Mysterious Spearing
Sam and Chub Hazlett were out in the ranges in early December 1930. They noticed the Aborigines of the area all disappeared at that time. For three weeks there were no smoke signals, a sure sign that none were around. Then news began to filter in that something had happened. About Christmas time several Aborigines came to Sam’s camp. They were wearing the “murder sign,” deep black grease stripes on their foreheads and chests.
In great agitation they said to the Aborigines of Sam’s party, “No kill white feller: we kill black feller other tribe. White feller get sulky and clear out. We no killem.”
The Hazletts returned to the ranges, setting out from Laverton on April 30, 1931. This was their road-making trip where they converted the track they had opened up in 1930 into a road suitable for motor vehicles. On this journey the party’s Aborigines met a local native who told them of the spearing of two white men in the ranges. He seemed to indicate it was somewhere in the direction of Mount Gosse. He said their pack saddles and water tanks were still at the site of the murders, and that several Aborigines known by name to Sam’s men had raided those packs and secured flour and other provisions.1
At the same time as Sam and Chub were on their road-making journey, another party consisting of Mr B. Hall and two brothers, Percy and George Rundle, together with an Aborigine named Rupert, were prospecting in the ranges and heard similar stories of the murders. Rupert extracted the information from two local natives that two white men had been speared in the chest while they were carrying water. The killers had then ransacked the victims’ packs, taking stores, tents and clothing. Hall and the Rundle brothers confirmed this as they actually saw Aborigines wearing some of the victims’ clothing. The party came to the conclusion that Aborigines in this area could murder white prospectors at will, knowing they could melt away into the mountain gorges and never have to face retribution.
In late July the Hall-Rundle party made arrangements to return to Laverton together with the Hazlett party whom they met at the Warburton Range. They had travelled only about a quarter of the way when one of the wheels collapsed on Sam’s camel dray and it had to be abandoned. Hall and the Rundles lent Sam two pack saddles for his dray camels so that he could pack his most essential gear for the long trip to Laverton. I am told that to this day the damaged dray remains there, its timbers preserved by the dry desert air.
On the road about 450 kilometres from Laverton they met up with a Government survey party under the leadership of Mr H. Paine of the Lands Department. Paine was tasked with the job of surveying the road which Sam and Chub had made to the ranges, and also surveying the pastoral lease which Sam had pegged. The survey party knew nothing of the murders having heard nothing before they left Laverton early in June.
About eighty kilometres from Laverton the Hazletts, Hall and the Rundles encountered a police party under Sergeant Bake. The police were on their way out to investigate the murders, and were headed for Sladen Waters in the Rawlinson Range which was the place they had heard was nearby the murder site. Sam’s combined party gave to the police all the information they had collected in the wilds.
The police had left Laverton with Aboriginal helpers needed for tracking and conversing with tribes in the ranges. However, these helpers had run away the night before, evidently thinking that this trip was dangerous for them. This left the police with no Aborigines. The Hall-Rundle party were able to provide the police with a native from the Hocking Range who would doubtless have been unfazed about returning to his own country.2
An interesting side point raised by Sam at this meeting with the police was the ability of Aborigines to convey messages from place to place with lightning rapidity and uncanny accuracy. Sam said that within three hours of the police party setting out from Laverton, his Aborigines, far distant, knew that the police were on their way, that they were using camels, and that they were armed. This freakish “bush telegraph” can often be explained by smoke signals from tribe to tribe. But throughout Australia there has always been a lingering suspicion that there is more to it than this, and that telepathy is a possibility in Aboriginal communication. What seems certain is that even in country where “smoke-talk” was impractical, tribal Aborigines had some communication methods which were utterly mysterious.
Sergeant Bake’s police party did not succeed in locating any trace of the murdered men, nor the exact spot where the spearings took place. In that vast area of mountains and gorges it would have been surprising if they had succeeded. Sam at different times thought that the victims were from Lawrence Wells’ party, from Michael Terry’s party, and later the two men Brown and Brumby. But as news of these men being still alive drifted in from the desert and from distant towns, the identities of the victims, if any, remained unknown. Sam, though, always believed that two white men had been done to death somewhere in the border ranges.
In a letter forwarded to the Police Commissioner by the police at Laverton, Spencer Gall, one of the leaders of the Quest expedition, said that in his travels he met Johanson, who was travelling with a mate Gall named as Fabian, at Ernabella in the Musgrave Range.3 He reported that they were intending to move on towards the Rawlinson Range.4 It seemed, then, that Johanson and his mate (whom other sources named as Smith) lost their lives in late November or early December 1930, and this was widely believed for the remainder of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. But the true story of what happened to Johanson has only recently been uncovered.
Johanson has been hard to trace because his surname has been spelled in different ways (even by himself), and although his Christian names were Olof Emanuel he was generally known as William (“Bill”). Originally from Sweden, he was a miner and prospector in Western and Central Australia in the late 1920s. When Western Australian newspapers first mentioned in May 1930 that Lasseter with John Bailey of the AWU as backer was about to seek a rich gold reef in Central Australia, Johanson who was a member of the AWU contacted Bailey and Lasseter. He told them that he, too, had come upon this rich gold reef. Bailey asked him to hold himself in readiness to join the Cage expedition, and Lasseter quizzed him on conditions in the Central Deserts. But Johanson went off prospecting and received letters from Sydney too late to be of help to CAGE. In the end, he let Lasseter’s wife Irene know that he had joined up with another party, and so could not meet up with Lasseter. Irene was in Sydney, and Harry Lasseter who was out in the desert knew nothing of this. But Johanson did not end up at the point of a spear. He returned to Kalgoorlie where he worked in the mines, apparently having failed to relocate his gold reef. Later he returned to Sweden where he died in 1955.5
So it was that Lasseter waited in vain for Johanson at Lake Christopher, which is situated at the western end of the Rawlinsons.
In his Diary, Lasseter wrote that from Lake Christopher he went straight to his reef and pegged it on December 23rd, 1930. So, where is this reef?
- Mirror, Perth, August 15, 1931, p. 1
- West Australian, Perth, August 26, 1931, p. 16
- Chronicle, Adelaide, July 16, 1931, p. 45
- West Australian, Perth, July 7, 1931, p. 7
- Clark, Chris, Olof’s Suitcase, Echo Books, West Geelong, Vic, 2015. Chris Clark is Olof Johanson’s grandson.
Chapter 9 – Lasseter’s Landmarks
Lasseter’s Diary contains strip maps of his travels with Paul Johns from Ilbilba via Lake Amadeus to Mount Olga and then to Ayers Rock. In the diary as handed over by Bob Buck the maps end there. The diary has few other clues as to the location of the reef.
However, Lasseter elsewhere told of certain landmarks which would lead to the reef. After his plane flight with Pat Hall from Ilbilba, he told Errol Coote of these signs:
Describing the position of Lake Christopher as a radial point, he indicated three hills which he said could not be mistaken. They looked like three women in sun-bonnets talking to one another. About thirty-five miles away to the south-east was another hill shaped like a Quaker hat: a tall hat, conical in shape, with the top cut off. The reef lay about ten miles east of a lakelet, and looking along the line of reef in a north-westerly direction, the Three Sisters, as he called them, appeared to be sitting on the far end of the reef. It was possible for the ’plane to land on the lakelet, but, close up against the reef, the country was thickly timbered. It could be seen from the air, just peeping through the mulga.1
Before the expedition left Sydney, and at the insistence of the CAGE Company, Lasseter left directions to the reef in a sealed envelope in a bank in Sydney. After his death the envelope was opened and this slightly different description of the landmarks was found. The exact latitude, longitude and compass bearings were withheld by CAGE when these details were published in a Sydney newspaper. In the envelope were two messages. The first message:
This is the position of reef in question, as shown by our observations en route and on the spot: Lat. ̶ , Long. ̶ , Group of 3 hills, bearing ̶ by ̶ , dist. 17 m. Single hill, flat top, bearing N.N.E.B.N., dist. 16 m. Reef in Mulga country and is yellow quartz and ironstone. Conglomerate instrusions [sic] towards southern end.2
Certain scratches or marks on the paper gave rise to the belief that there was more information written on the paper in “invisible ink,” perhaps lemon juice, onion juice, or similar. Treatment of the paper to develop this writing, probably heating of the paper, brought out the second message:
The estimated position of this reef is Lat. ̶ S., Long. ̶ E. Group of 3 hills, looking like group of Dickens’ women in ‘Dombey and Son,’ one looks like a maternity case, bearing ̶ , dist. 17 m. Single hill looking like QUAKER, bearing ̶ by ̶ , dist. 20 m. Compass variation at Carnarvon ̶ E. 1897. Only one point on reef from which these two points can be seen. Distant about 3 miles from quartz blow south.3
On the outside of the envelope was written the information that the bearings were taken by a compass which varied 274 degrees east at Carnarvon in 1897.4
This makes it appear that Lasseter was prepared to give the original bearings as measured in the 1890s to the company in the first message, but wished to keep secret the “estimated position” or theoretical “corrected position” in the second message, hence the use of invisible ink. However the omitted bearings have never been released. It is said that most of the CAGE papers were burnt after Lasseter’s death and the conclusion of CAGE’s own expeditions5, so there are mysteries here which may never be solved.
For Lasseter’s journey with Paul Johns to the reef’s vicinity we are chiefly dependent on the accounts given at various times by Johns himself. At first glance these seem vague, and even contradictory, but we can reconcile his statements to obtain a very good idea of where they went.
Johns’s account of the journey as he reported it to Coote has been given above in Chapter 6. It is probably a believable version, for as far as anyone knew Lasseter was still alive at that moment. Johns was upset because Lasseter had reported the incident with the revolver in his letter to Government Resident Carrington. (Johns admitted he had opened this letter and read it.) So probably he blurted out the truth to Coote. But Coote, writing in 1934, could have omitted quite a bit of detail.
Coote tells us that according to Johns, the two men went from Ayers Rock westward, via the Petermanns, into wild, broken, mountainous country. The going was so severe on the camels’ feet that they could only travel slowly. Shortly after passing from this country into swampy country the camels could not continue. Johns stayed in camp with them while Lasseter was away for two days during which he claimed to have relocated his reef. When he returned the fight occurred.6
VERSION 2 :
After Johns had calmed down, his story began to change. The fight was still mentioned, but now the story was that Lasseter had produced the revolver and Johns had disarmed him.7
In 1933, Barry O’Keefe of Gilgandra wrote of his discussions with Paul Johns when both were at the Granites gold strike in the Northern Territory. Based on what Johns told him, O’Keefe wrote:
Lasseter and Johns set off into the desert. They did not agree long and were constantly quarrelling, the climax coming when they neared the Peterman Ranges, when Lasseter attempted to pull his gun on Johns, who, however, beat and disarmed him and forced him to leave the camp. They soon made up again and started afresh. At this juncture, Johns became sceptical about the veracity of Lasseter’s story. He, however, was even more adamant. Provisions by now were low and when Lasseter suggested entering a region which Johns knew to be absolutely waterless, Johns suggested that they return for more stores and come back. This Lasseter refused to do. They finally halved the provisions and whilst Johns returned to the Alice, Lasseter kept going…
… Johns thinks Lasseter was mad and had no idea where he was, much less where his gold reef was. He says that before they parted Lasseter was completely lost and had he taken his (Johns) advice he would have been alive yet.8
There is no mention of Lasseter finding his reef, no mention of a return together to Ilbilba.
VERSION 3 :
In 1935 another account was published in a Sydney newspaper. This account is said to have been written by Johns himself, but seems more likely to have been written by a tabloid journalist who had interviewed Johns and dramatized his story. The geography given is very different. From the Petermanns, where heavy rain was encountered, the two men travelled an enormous distance:
Crossing the Warburton Range, we zigzagged a great deal, endeavouring to make contact with Lasseter’s country. At this time our supplies were running low … It was now necessary to return to our base camp at Ilbilba, and we made a direct line for it, avoiding Lake Amadeus, and accomplishing the trip in seven days.9
Again, there is no mention of the fight, and no mention of Lasseter finding his reef.
VERSION 4 :
In 1932 Paul Johns had been interviewed by famous journalist and author, Ernestine Hill. Her account, said to be “verbatim” from Johns, was not published until 1968, and even then it appeared in a very limited edition of one hundred copies. Here we are told that after striking heavy rain in the Petermanns, the two travelled
over the border to Sladen Waters, through the Rawlinson Range, now we rode south-west for 80 miles [129 kilometres]. I think Lasseter thought we were nearing the end of our journey. At any rate we were near the end of our rations. From Petadi, 70 miles [113 kilometres] south of Winters Glen, we turned back to Ilbilba for more rations. We travelled back in ten days.10
Putting the four versions together, and making allowances for the errors that are inevitable when stories are repeated, we can gain a fairly accurate idea of where Johns and Lasseter travelled together. Lasseter had said he needed to be 150 miles (241 kilometres) south of the Ilbilba-Mt Marjorie area. In other words he wanted to be near latitude 25 degrees 30 minutes south. The latitude would have been known to him with a fair degree of accuracy, because precise time is not necessary in calculating latitude. Only the longitude would have been uncertain because of the unreliable time-pieces of those days, which is why Lasseter could not be sure which side of the border his reef was positioned. All this is true whether Lasseter had long ago discovered the reef himself, or whether he had heard the story and gotten the bearings from someone else, as many people have suspected.
So from Ilbilba Lasseter and Johns travelled south via Mt Putardi’s waterhole near Mt Udor and Lake Amadeus to Ayers Rock and Mt Olga, and thence to Stevenson Peak, which is 25 degrees 30 minutes south, his target latitude. From there they needed to approach the border following the most likely gold-bearing country, which was the range country. So they followed the Petermanns to the border and on to Sladen Waters then travelled the Rawlinson Range. Not having spotted his landmarks, Lasseter then took Johns eighty miles (129 kilometres) south-west to the Warburton Range in order to head back towards the border along the more southern ranges. These are largely short ranges running from north-west to south-east, so the men would have had to zigzag a great deal (as Johns said) to cover them all. Possibly they prospected down the Warburton and Townsend ranges, up the Hocking and Barrow Ranges, down the Jameson and Cavenagh Ranges, along Blackstone Range to Mt Aloysius and Bell Rock Range, back up and along the Tomkinson Range, up to Mt Cockburn and down the Mann Range until they reached the eastern end of that range and the Piltati Rock Hole, which, as Johns says, is seventy miles (113 kilometres) south (actually a little east of south) of Winters Glen on Irving Creek. Ernestine Hill spelled it Petadi, but all of these names were spelled in various ways, and there is no doubt that the trip ended at this particular rock hole.
According to Fred Blakeley, Lasseter did not take his sextant with him when he left Ilbilba by camel with Johns.11 He would have therefore depended on rough bush methods of establishing his latitude, methods which are accurate only to within half a degree or so. Half a degree of latitude equates to about fifty-five kilometres on land. It is noteworthy that in following all those ranges the two men travelled north and south of their target latitude about that distance, but they went east and west of the border for a greater distance due to the uncertainty of longitude in the original story presented by Lasseter. But having followed all the ranges in that area Lasseter still had not spotted his landmarks. Therefore he would have wanted to travel into the region between the two lines of ranges (the Petermanns and Rawlinsons at roughly twenty-five degrees south, and the Warburton to Mann Ranges at roughly twenty-six degrees south). He would have wanted to go to where the Western Australian border crosses the latitude of 25⁰30’. But Johns objected, and he had two powerful arguments to stop Lasseter. Firstly, he knew of no water in that area. Secondly, they were almost out of provisions. So at this point they returned to Ilbilba for more rations, following which they went their separate ways.
Although Paul Johns knew of no water in the area just mentioned, many years later Chub Hazlett revealed that he and his father Sam had travelled there and located two Aboriginal water holes, the Wongzi Rock Hole and the Wooroo Rock Hole, as shown on Map 5B in my Map Gallery. But between these two places Chub noted there was no water ̶ if the doubtful scribble on the map actually says “No water.”
After reprovisioning at Ilbilba and giving Johns letters to take back to post in Alice Springs, Lasseter faced the desert alone with two camels and went, via the Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges, to Lake Christopher. Here, at the beginning of December 1930, he waited for Johanson. Having failed to locate his own landmarks, he would have been thinking now of Johanson’s account of how he had come upon the reef. For Johansen had told both Lasseter and a workmate named Neville Wolff how he had originally stumbled upon the gold. Johanson had been seeking dingo scalps in the Rawlinson Range and was led by an Aboriginal woman down a southern spur of that range into the flat lands, a spot where wildlife flourished and dingos were plentiful. There, in a belt of mulga scrub, he found a reef in which a shallow shaft had at some time previously been sunk. Johanson’s grandson, Chris Clark, who has just recently uncovered this information, has a slight problem with this story, for he writes that there are no southern spurs to the Rawlinson Range.12
But this depends on your definition of a “spur.” According to the mid-20th century Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it is “a range, ridge, mountain, hill, or part of this, projecting for some distance from the main system or mass.” An example is given from a writer of 1863: “a spur or rising ground at the base of the hills.” So in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the word could refer to even an extended side flank of a mountain or hill in a range. Johanson’s account could mean that he was led down the flank of a mountain by the easiest route, a long and gentle grade. There are such mountain flanks on the south side of the Rawlinsons. In particular, the section of the Rawlinson Range which dips farthest south, just west of Sladen Water, is shown on Google Earth as having such gentle grades; and these slopes lead down to visible creek beds which, after rains, should have plenty of wildlife and dingos. We are not told, though, just how far Johanson travelled in the flat lands.
Lasseter, sitting at Lake Christopher, would have been mulling over all this. Finally, giving up on meeting with Johanson, he may well have sought out the spur and actually found the reef down in that flatter country. After all, in his diary he said he found it.
It is interesting to see that the actual area traversed by Lasseter and Johns together (their journey is shown by the blue arrows in Map 2 in the Map Gallery) stretched down as far south as the ranges between Warburton and the border. This general area was the next to feature strongly in the story of Lasseter’s reef. Out of the desert just to the south of there quite literally came staggering a prospector with a spear wound in his leg, a story of Aborigines killing his camel, and some exciting quartz specimens richly studded with gold. His name was Paddy Whelan.
- Coote, Errol, Hell’s Airport, 2nd edition, Peterman Press, Sydney, April 1934, p. 158
- Sunday Times, Perth, August 16, 1931, p. 1
- Brown, Warren, Lasseter’s Gold, Hachette, Sydney, 2015, p. 322
- Coote, Errol, op. cit. pp. 232-233
- Chronicle, Adelaide, March 12, 1931, p. 49
- Gilgandra Weekly, NSW, August 17, 1933, p. 2
- Sydney Mail, August 7, 1935, pp. 10-11
- Johns, Paul, About Lasseter/ Paul Johns’ Statement; as told to Ernestine Hill, Scrivener Press, Elizabeth, SA, 1968, p. 4
- Blakeley, Fred, Dream Millions, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1972, pp. 148-149
- Clark, Chris, Olof’s Suitcase, Echo Books, West Geelong, Vic, 2015, p. 163
Chapter 10 – The Race for Whelan’s Find
This 1932 news report came from Laverton dated June 9:
Constable Polak, with his usual promptitude, on receiving a report that a white man was travelling almost exhausted on the White Cliffs ̶ Warburton road, secured food and restoratives and went to his relief. The spinifex pedestrian proved to be P. Whelan, a member of Ike Muller’s exploratory party, that are situated somewhere at the ranges or thereabouts. He stated he walked 200 miles [322 kilometres] in six days, almost without food and very little water. He was picked up by the constable in his motor car about 70 miles [113 kilometres] east of Laverton, and conveyed to the White Cliffs homestead, where Mr Brockman, the manager, is kindly looking to his welfare.1
When recovered enough, the injured Paddy Whelan made his way to Perth. He had shown around his rich gold specimens in Laverton and Kalgoorlie, but had not raised much excitement there. But in Perth, sensational tales were soon told of his samples and his desperate adventures. On July 28, 1932, Whelan reported to the State Mines Department two gold discoveries and requested a concession forty-eight kilometres square in the Livesey Range area.
The Sydney based CAGE Company quickly objected, complaining that this area was in their reserve. CAGE had given up exploring with trucks and planes, and, financed by businessman Leslie Bridge, had sent Bob Buck and his camels out with a party to search again for Lasseter’s reef in August 1931. Buck’s party included Torrington Blatchford, the chief mining geologist for the Western Australian Government, and Henry W.B. Talbot, prominent geologist and mining surveyor who also worked for the government, so the search for Lasseter’s reef was being taken seriously by the authorities. But now in August 1932, the Minister for Mines in Western Australia, Mr J. Scadden, said the CAGE reservation had expired.
Paddy Whelan was quickly backed by a Perth-Adelaide syndicate. A camel expedition led by Henry Talbot, the man who had been out with Bob Buck a year earlier, left Laverton on September 11, 1932 for Whelan’s find at the Livesey Range. Second in command of this expedition was Perth mining engineer, Norman Stuckey. However, the party was forced back by lack of water in the severe drought conditions.
Meanwhile, pilot and journalist, Errol Coote, no longer connected with CAGE, and claiming that Lasseter had disclosed the whereabouts of the reef to him, became guide for another company in Sydney, the West Centralian Gold Exploration Company. This company was associated with two British-Australian companies. Under instructions from London, the Sydney company got in touch with Paddy Whelan. Coote publicly stated that he would fly to meet Whelan at a spot a little south of Possum Hill, which is twenty-seven kilometres north of Livesey Range.2
Elsewhere, Richard Lugg, a metallurgist and mining engineer, had travelled from Western Australia to Ballarat in Victoria to confer with an old friend, engineer and mining investor, Theo Leonard. Lugg and Leonard had some history with Paddy Whelan. Back in 1921, Lugg, Leonard, Paddy Whelan, and a man named Tom Sargeant who owned a motor car, had set out to find a gold reef which Whelan had said he found in 1915. The reef was, Whelan said, about 240 kilometres from Kalgoorlie, but he failed in his 1921 attempt to guide the party to it. Nevertheless, Lugg and Leonard decided to chance Whelan’s word again, particularly as another prospector, Mick Roach, was also claiming that he had struck gold in the Livesey Range area within the last year or so. Another spur to action was the fact that when Theo Leonard had been at Laverton he saw an Aborigine with good alluvial and quartz gold specimens in his possession. When asked where he got the gold he said six sleeps away and pointed to the north-east. But he could never be persuaded to take Leonard to the spot.3
An expedition was quickly put together. Lugg knew that the serious drought conditions meant that many native soaks and rock holes would be dry. He planned to use a truck to speed the expedition as far as the Warburton Range, and camels for the last stage to Livesey Range. He needed a camel man with expert knowledge of water sources and he sought out Sam Hazlett. Sam had a wide reputation amongst both white prospectors and Aborigines for his knowledge of desert water.
In September 1932 the Laverton correspondent for a Perth newspaper wrote:
Last week Lugg’s party (which is going to the Livesey Range) arrived here, and a few days later old Sam Hazlett blew in with his camels. They hit the trail on Monday, the 26th. Both parties, Whelan’s and Lugg’s, are fortunate, as rain set in on the 26th, and by the look of the sky out east it looks like a veritable downpour in that direction. The Lugg party decided to take every advantage and set out in the rain and chased it out.4
Others were also on the road heading for Whelan’s find, which was now firmly associated in the press with Lasseter’s reef. Lawrence Wells, representing companies from the eastern states, was headed out. A man named J.S. Rose with two camels, but no companions, was in the race. It was reckoned that thirty-four camels and twenty men were on the track to the Livesey Range in one of the driest seasons on record. Aborigines coming into Laverton were reporting that plenty of rock holes were dry and water was very scarce.5
Then came Errol Coote with Keith Farmer and Charlie Cable, using a truck to carry out petrol for his new company’s plane, and clearing air strips at intervals along the road. His final air strip and a dump of 900 litres of petrol were to be situated at Hazlett’s well on Elder Creek. This was to be his main base.
Whelan’s second attempt at an expedition to the Livesey Range was delayed. It was said treatment for his injuries was detaining him. But as well, Whelan was secretly wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, and not only with Coote. However, delaying could mean losing his find to others, so Whelan again approached the Mines Department. A Perth newspaper soon reported:
In view of the many expeditions aiming to reach the Livesey Ranges following the report made by Mr. P. Whelan, the Minister for Mines has agreed to give Mr. Whelan priority over other claimants for the pegging of 36 leases … It has been pointed out that it is likely Mr. Whelan’s pegs have been destroyed, and in order to protect the interests of the original discoverer the Minister has accorded the priority stated.6
The Lugg-Hazlett party was financed by a combination of six companies calling themselves the “Livesey Six.” The Secretary, Mr Norman A. Smith, released this letter to the press in early November. Dated October 22, 1932, it is the first report from the field by Richard Lugg on how his expedition was progressing:
In the mulga, 130 miles [209 kilometres] north-east from Laverton, W.A. It is just possible that this note may be taken into Laverton and posted by the party which is to lay down petrol supplies for the ’plane party on its way to the Livesey Ranges.
Reports as to water are most unfavourable, but I confidently believe I have organised in a way which will take us through. Providing we have no serious breakdown with the truck we will be easily first at the Livesey Ranges. If we are, I know you will be well pleased considering that other parties had a long lead on us and considering the delay at Laverton.
Our official party now consists of Sam Hazlett (the well-known W.A. explorer), W. Higgs, Sam Hough and myself, while Higgs’ late partner, Stewart, who has his own food supplies comes along unofficially and will safeguard the truck and supplies with Higgs at Hazelett’s [sic] Well, Warburton Range, which we expect to reach about November 6, while Hazlett, Hough and I do the last stage, about 80 miles [129 kilometres], on camels. I have engaged no natives but the fact that we were going through soon became known among them and three and a piccaninny, one month old, joined up outside Laverton and went as far as Thatcher’s Soak with the camels. We dropped two and the baby there, but a Warburton boy (a young Warrigal or wild native) whom Hazlett brought in some time ago, and who was with Talbot, joined up and, as his ‘home town’ is the Warburton Ragne [sic], he should be very useful. The natives with us are all returning to their own districts and are only allowed to go with the camels at their own request and for their own safety through the territory of other tribes of which they are very much afraid.
A quaint touch is added to the trip by the fact that we are conveying by modern transport, i.e., the motor truck, spears and woomeras made from special timber at Karonie, near the East-West line, via Laverton to the Warburton tribe, where no such timber is available. They were only entrusted to us because Sam Hazlett is in our party. The care and evident worry concerning their safe delivery was most amusing and consultations were held prior to handing them over. It shows how communication is maintained by these primitive people. It appears that the weapons were promised at a grand corroboree and the promise is being fulfilled in this way. Karonie is over 500 miles [805 kilometres] distant from the Warburton Range.
I am more than pleased that the enforced delay at Laverton occurred as I obtained invaluable information and was able to organise to meet the exceptional conditions.
The party is a happy one, all are well and facing the job ahead with confidence.7
Their truck travelled Sam’s road to the Warburton Ranges carrying supplies to lighten the camels’ loads and allow them to travel with speed. When the truck could go no farther, Lugg, Hazlett and Hough with eight camels went via the Townsend, Barrow and Hocking Ranges to make the final dash through the sand hills to the Livesey Range. Their well-organised expedition was indeed the first in the race to reach this destination.
Back in Perth, Whelan was still asserting that he was about to go out again, this time by motor truck. Camels had been proved entirely unsuitable, he said. Questioned about Coote’s earlier statement that the two would be meeting up in the desert, Whelan denied it emphatically:
My plans are unaltered and I shall stick with the first party ̶ I have never had any intention of joining up with any other outfit, either land or air.8
By the beginning of December, Whelan’s party was gathering in Laverton. Norman Stuckey had arrived there and had been waiting for some weeks. Whelan and Talbot were expected to arrive there on the Perth train on December 1st. They never arrived.
But others did arrive in Laverton on December 1st ̶ the returning Lugg party, with sensational news! Richard Lugg declared unhesitatingly and emphatically that there were no signs of gold in the Livesey Range, and no sign of Whelan ever having been there. There were no reefs in or near the range, and for a distance of forty kilometres on every side the range was surrounded by sand hills. He left a trig (a surveyor’s cairn of rocks) on top of the range with his initials cut on it for proof to following parties that he had prospected the field. Where Whelan had reported big timber they found only sand hills, and where he had stated he had knapped rich specimens from the outcrop of a reef thirteen or fourteen kilometres long they could not find a “colour.” There was not a sign of the thirty-six ten-hectare leases Whelan stated he had pegged.9
Errol Coote immediately made an announcement:
In view of Mr. Lugg’s statement I am convinced that our party will be on the right track by working to the north-east of the Livesey Range to a point south of Lake Christopher. Here there are three definite landmarks, given to me by Lasseter before he left on his last tragic camel ride, and they will easily be located from the air. Our party will carry on to the finish, as our information is of a more definite character than anybody else’s, although I must admit that I thought if anybody had stumbled on to Lasseter’s show it was Whelan. However, now that this doubt has been cleared away, we will keep to our original schedule, and make direct for Lasseter’s reef.10
By mid-December Coote had flown over the Livesey Range district and confirmed Lugg’s report, and had done an aerial survey of a large area from the Livesey Range to the Rawlinson Range and Lake Christopher.
Meanwhile, the Ivan Gold Mines Company, one of the Livesey Six who had backed Lugg and Hazlett, recognized that these two experienced prospectors were a valuable team. Richard Lugg and Sam Hazlett joined forces again for another month or so, sent by Ivan in December 1932 to areas north-west and south of Laverton where gold was considered likely. Having proved Whelan’s word unreliable, they took no further part in searching for his alleged find.11
- Kalgoorlie Miner, Western Australia, June 13, 1932, p. 1
- Sydney Morning Herald, September 12, 1932, p. 9
- Daily News, Perth, February 7, 1933, p. 2
- Sunday Times, Perth, October 2, 1932, p. 3
- Daily News, Perth, October 19, 1932, p. 5
- Daily News, Perth, November 2, 1932, p. 1
- Kalgoorlie Miner, Western Australia, November 8, 1932, p. 2
- Daily News, Perth, November 16, 1932, p. 5
- Sunday Times, Perth, December 11, 1932, p. 6
- The Brisbane Courier, December 3, 1932, p. 17
- Kalgoorlie Miner, Western Australia, December 16, 1932, p. 1
Chapter 11 – Drama in the Desert
But the most dramatic part of the Whelan saga was now to come. Whelan and Stuckey flew by chartered plane to Forrest on the Nullarbor Plain, intending to make that their base and fly to the reef from there. These two men and pilot Harry Baker were aboard when the plane left Forrest for the Livesey Range area on December 22, 1932. The intention was to land Whelan and Stuckey at the reef, the pilot alone to return to Forrest by the next day. But the plane did not return. By the 28th, Perth headlines screamed:
LOST ’PLANE. SECRET GOLD QUEST. NO NEWS FROM CREW. RELIEF MACHINE SETS OUT1
Both Errol Coote, as leader and pilot of the West Centralian Company, and Charles Lexius-Burlington, a director of the Lasseter Gold Company of Melbourne, contacted Whelan’s backers to offer their services and the West Centralian plane to search for the missing men. They were mightily surprised to be told Whelan had left secretly, financed not by the original syndicate but by Sydney share broker Keith Docker. Burlington contacted Docker with his offer. It would have suited Coote and Burlington very well to be told the lost plane’s destination. But Docker was not inclined to give away that information. He already had arranged for a Hercules plane with searchers to go out, the searchers only being told where they should look when the Hercules was in the air. They found nothing.
Then Baker and the lost plane reappeared at Forrest, but with only one passenger, Norman Stuckey, who had a severe gash to his head. The plane had been forced down on a clay pan in the Great Victoria Desert with a burst oil pipe. Baker had done temporary repairs, but could not take off again in the limited area with a full load, so had to leave one passenger behind. Whelan, a heavy man, was left marooned on the salt lake, and he was also injured. The Air Force was called in to parachute food and water to him. Their planes could not land and take off on the tiny space available. Baker, the real hero of this adventure, did more substantial repairs to his tiny De Havilland Fifty plane, and then flew out and rescued Whelan who had spent two weeks marooned. The clay pan was later named Baker Lake after the pilot, and can be seen in Map 1B in the Map Gallery.
(February 23, 2017 correction: Baker Lake shown in Map 1B was first seen and given its name by the explorer F.H. Hann as recorded in his diary on July 15, 1903; so if a lake was named after pilot Harry Baker it cannot have been the lake shown in Map 1B.)
The Australian press seized upon and dramatized the sensational tale, and continued to run exciting stories told by Whelan upon his return.2 The enormous publicity was good for Whelan. In spite of the negative reports of Lugg and Coote, Paddy Whelan seemed to have no trouble in again raising the finances to mount yet another expedition to the Livesey Range area.
One man who put money into Whelan’s searches was L. Campbell Allen, owner of the Glencoe Station at Pithara, Western Australia. Describing himself as intimately acquainted with Whelan, he said Paddy was a South African and had considerable experience as a prospector. Paddy had shown him wonderful samples, the white quartz being fairly studded with gold, assaying over 100 ounces to the ton. The samples were taken from an “enterapping” (entrapping?) reef, and Paddy was most enthusiastic about his discovery, reckoning that another Coolgardie would spring up.3
Paddy Whelan, Norman Stuckey and cameleer Larry Elsted, left Laverton in March 1933 for Paddy’s third attempt to rediscover his reef. This time he was using motor trucks and camels in much the same manner as Lugg and Hazlett had done. But now it was also claimed that Whelan had a map of Harry Lasseter’s to work with!4
The weather conditions had improved. It was cooler and more water was available in desert regions. Yet again it was a race, for Errol Coote was planning to come back with another plane for another tilt at finding a reef.5
Whelan’s party had not been out for very long before Norman Stuckey was rushed back to Leonora Hospital. He had stumbled, and a loaded revolver on his belt went off and wounded him, but not too seriously. The bullet was extracted and Stuckey re-joined the party in mid-April.
Finally, at the beginning of June 1933, the newspapers were reporting that the expedition’s motor vehicles had returned to Laverton. Stuckey would say nothing. It was apparently Whelan who claimed that they had been forced to return when within two days of reaching his reef. There was no explanation of what had forced the return. It certainly wasn’t lack of water, but it seems there was a lack of gold.6
From this time onward Paddy Whelan disappeared from the news headlines, and “Whelan’s Find” joined the list of mysterious lost reefs in Central Australian mythology. Paddy’s luck with financial backers had finally run out.
- The West Australian, Perth, December 28, 1932, p. 7
- The Advertiser, Adelaide, January 7, 1933, pp. 15, 16
- Hobart Mercury, March 9, 1933, p. 4
- Kalgoorlie Miner, March 4, 1933, p. 4
- News, Adelaide, March 23, 1933, p. 9
- The West Australian, Perth, June 3, 1933, p. 16
Chapter 12 – The Leichhardt Relics
It was during the Whelan saga that Sam Hazlett began to speak of certain supposed relics of the lost explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt. Leichhardt had disappeared on his attempt to travel from the Roma district in Queensland to Western Australia’s Swan River district in 1848. Some relics were said to lie in a far-off region known only to desert Aborigines. These natives told Sam stories of an iron box lying on the desert sands which they could not open with their spears. It was too heavy to lift and could only be pushed along a short distance in the sand. Nearby were rusted iron wagon tyres, bullocks’ horns, and the bones of men and animals. At first, Sam was inclined to dismiss these stories as fanciful. Later, when he discovered that their descriptions tallied with actual items taken by Leichhardt on his last journey, Sam’s interest was raised.
The tales had also reached the ears of Dr C.W. Laver, an old pioneer of the Laverton district, and after whom Laverton was named. Dr Laver was now Medical Officer at the Kalgoorlie Hospital. Though his own prospecting days were over, he grub-staked prospectors down on their luck, and his heart was out in the desert lands. He talked over the Leichhardt mystery with Sam, and encouraged Sam to collect whatever information he could from desert tribes in his wanderings. It was Dr Laver who developed the theory that these relics were of Leichhardt’s expedition, though most other theorists were of the opinion that Leichhardt could never have travelled as far as the Western Australian deserts. Laver, however, believed that Leichhardt would have encountered no absolutely impassable country until he struck this zone.
In February 1933 Sam and Chub Hazlett set off on another expedition. As always, they were vague about where they were headed. They usually gave their destination as being around the Warburton Ranges area. They let it be known that this trip was primarily an expedition to search for the supposed Leichhardt relics. There can be no doubt that they did keep an eye out and their ears open for any clues as to where those relics might be. But their primary concern was the search for gold, and they headed straight into Lasseter country. On this trip they were out for four months and their camels travelled, they said, a thousand miles (1,609 kilometres), searching in the area around the Warburton and Rawlinson Ranges.
Financing such expeditions was not cheap, but there were several sources of funds:
- Sam was trying to develop pastoral interests in the ranges to finance his trips.
- There were certain rates of assistance available from the government.
- There was the bounty payable on dingo scalps. There were lots of dingos in the ranges and at one time the bounty reached as high as a guinea per scalp.
- There was the gold that a prospector could find. My father was given to understand that Sam, though really seeking a great bonanza, always found enough gold to keep going. As a journalist wrote in 1941, “Hazlett never speaks of how fortune has treated him, but he must be making more than tucker to be able to go on year after year.”
- Occasionally there were sponsorship deals. It would seem likely that Sam was provided with flour for an expedition in return for this endorsement which appeared in a newspaper (we have the cutting but not the paper’s name) on January 25, 1936: Discussing the difficulty of keeping provisions in good condition when away on prospecting and exploring expeditions, Mr. Sam Hazlett had this to say: ‘For a long time I had trouble with flour. It was a job to keep it in condition to cook. It would go hard with the heat, become sticky when mixed and would not bake properly. What is a bushman without a good damper? I sampled most brands, then I tried out “BORONIA.” It is the best for the man outback. It keeps well and does not go hard and become sticky. Left over “BORONIA” flour from one trip, I have taken out on the next trip. I found out that men on back stations prefer “BORONIA,” and order it for their rations.’
- As well, there were syndicates and individual backers like Dr Laver who would put money into an expedition in return for a share of any finds.
It seems likely that Dr Laver put money into Sam’s travels in the hope of discovering the Leichhardt relics. A newspaper columnist at one time mentioned his friend Dr Laver who told him he was going to send Sam Hazlett out again to Central Australia to investigate the story of the iron box.1
Yes, the expedition of February to June 1933 was said to be a search for relics of Leichhardt. But it is clear that this was also a convenient story to deflect attention away from Sam and Chub’s exact prospecting destinations. They were systematically combing the whole area which is nowadays referred to as Lasseter’s country, both the ranges where many prospectors for decades had found good indications of gold, and even the flatter desert where sometimes (admittedly infrequently) surprise outcrops of auriferous country could appear unexpectedly.
The exact location of where the relics were supposed to be was withheld by Sam. His excuse was that he did not want others to steal a march on him and be first to find those objects, and that he was hoping the government would reward him should he find them and solve the eighty-five year old mystery of what had happened to Leichhardt. At first the Great Victoria Desert was suggested as the place, and later the Gibson Desert. Then again, at other times a different direction was said to be indicated by the natives’ stories.
Sam and Chub arrived back at Laverton on June 18, 1933, accompanied by Larry Elsted and his camels who were returning from the last of the Whelan expeditions. Although the drought had eased somewhat where Whelan had been searching, Sam reported that farther north where he had been there was still a great scarcity of water. He believed he had reached to within 160 kilometres of where the Leichhardt relics were supposed to be, he said, but was forced back by the seriously dry conditions. However, he intended to go back there and search again as soon as he could finance another expedition.
Sam returned to Perth for a quick visit to see Nina and the children. But they knew he would soon be gone again on his endless quest for gold.
- The Richmond River Herald, New South Wales, January 26, 1937, p. 4
Chapter 13 – Sam and the Press
In the second half of 1933 Sam was prospecting in an area south of Laverton. In August it was reported in the Perth press he had discovered a promising find about thirty-two kilometres east of Linden and about eighty kilometres south-east of Laverton. The report stated he had uncovered a body of lode material said to contain good values. Although in the past this area had frequently been prospected, Sam’s report encouraged several parties to go out and it was expected there would be considerable pegging.1
The Perth newspapers loved Sam, for he was always a source of good stories, sometimes dramatic and bloodthirsty. The Western Australian version of Truth, a notorious scandal sheet, carried an extremely gory story of Sam’s adventures in 1930. It contained an interesting photo of Sam’s back showing his old spear wounds.2
Many bushmen are shy and retiring, but Sam Hazlett actively courted the press, knowing that a public profile was important to help find sponsors and backers for his expeditions. In November 1933 Sam gave the press this delightful yarn. The Perth Daily News told the tale of how he had built his road to the Warburton Range from one rock hole to another with his “road making machine.” The story continued:
Each rockhole on the route he marked, enlarged it where possible, and protected it from straying animals with a timber covering. The track extended about 400 miles [644 kilometres] to within 75 miles [121 kilometres] of the South Australian border. At the ranges he improved existing water supplies, and added to them by sinking wells on Elder Creek.
Other people benefited from Hazlett’s work. He supplied to the Mines Department a description of the route with distances between water-holes, and the holding capacity of each hole. The department has posted copies in its offices for the information of prospectors. Parties, including those led by Michael Terry and L.A. Wells and several expeditions to the Livesey Ranges, used the track. It was also followed by the police party which went to investigate the reported murder by blacks of two prospectors. Finally a Government survey party traversed it, straightened a bend or two, and marked it on the map as Payne’s [sic] Track. Hazlett never received any official reward or recognition for his work, and because of the fall in the price of cattle his pastoral lease has not been stocked.
Lately Sam Hazlett has been testing a reef he has found near Camel Back Soak in the Mt. Margaret district, but will soon have to retreat on account of scarcity of water. He and other prospectors near him get their mail by waiting on the Murrin-Linden road every Thursday for the mail man to pass.
Last Thursday, when the mail man stopped, Sam received a surprise in the form of a registered letter. Opening it he found his work had been officially recognised at last. It was a demand from the Wiluna Roads Board for £21 rates on his pastoral lease!3
Sam’s incredible survival of the spear attack had made him Australia wide news in 1905. Around 1930 when he reappeared as a desert explorer in the West he was again famous, even internationally, for the story of coughing up the spear barb. The barb itself he kept as a souvenir in his Bayswater home. We have a clipping from an unknown English newspaper which says the barb was once on display at a doctors’ conference at a university. It was said later to be in a university museum somewhere but I have been unable to trace it.
So well-known was the tough old explorer that letters addressed to him simply at Perth W.A. or care of a newspaper would reach him. In the Hazlett papers is one letter from a Charlie Hazlett, probably a distant cousin of Sam’s. He saw a photo of Sam and his camels in the Sydney-based Smith’s Weekly. He addressed the letter “care of Smith’s Weekly, Melbourne,” and it reached Sam in Perth.
Sam’s road earned him high praise in the press from other well-known explorers and prospectors of his time. Lawrence Wells described meeting Sam on his travels. Sam and Chub had travelled with two drays and a spring cart all drawn by camels from Laverton by what Wells described as a “circuitous route”, but where water was plentiful. Wells wrote:
He gave me valuable information regarding water. He is now camped near my depot, as the natives, about 150 or more, are not to be trusted. They would stop at nothing to loot the camps.4
Explorer Michael Terry, who also used Sam’s road and met him in the interior, had such great respect for him that he named Lake Hazlett after Sam.
Norman Tinsdale, who led a party into Central Australia under the auspices of the Adelaide University, heaped praise on Sam for making his journey eastward from Laverton so simple. Sam’s helpful markings and directions to waterholes in that isolated area proved invaluable, he said.5
Sam’s grandson Geoff Wells and his wife Dacia tell me that in the mid-1960s Sam’s maps were on display on the walls of the Boulder City Council Chambers. Visitors were told that these maps were still in use and were provided to travellers in remote areas. Keen to obtain copies of these, I contacted Tim Moore, Kalgoorlie’s Local History Officer, only to learn that no such maps now exist. It seems much material from the Boulder records was lost when Boulder and Kalgoorlie Councils were united. The map of Sam’s road which I give here (see Maps 1A and 1B) is reconstructed as accurately as is now possible from other old sources. His road was the basis for today’s Great Central Road from Lake Throssell to Warburton.
- Sunday Times, Perth, August 13, 1933, p. 6
- Truth, Western Australia, June 22, 1930, p. 9
- The Daily News, Perth, November 27, 1933, p. 3
- The Register News-Pictorial, Adelaide, January 29, 1931, p. 6
- The Daily News, Perth, September 6, 1935, p. 6; Macleay Chronicle, Kempsey NSW, January 8, 1936, p. 2
Chapter 14 – Sam and the Aborigines
The pastoral lease in the ranges was not a successful proposition for Sam. His intention was to run cattle and/or sheep on the land and transport them to a butcher in Kalgoorlie with whom he had an arrangement. But in the 1930s missionaries moved into the Warburton Ranges district and requested a large area be set aside as an Aboriginal Reserve. The government foresaw that continued encroachment by whites upon the Central Desert region would rapidly wipe out a people who really struggled for an existence there. The reserve was granted. When this was done, the good land with permanent water was lost to Sam for pastoral purposes.
Historian Stan Gratte of Geraldton knew personally one of those early missionaries, Harry Lupton. Lupton told him that they first went up to Warburton with Aboriginal guides and camels to where one of Sam’s wells was situated on Elder Creek and left a lot of gear there. Returning to Laverton they requested a reserve be made. Travelling out again on Sam’s road with a camel wagon, they found their gear had been thrown down the well. They blamed Sam.1
This accusation was quite unfair, and must have been false, for Sam would never have polluted a permanent water supply that he himself had provided. On the other hand, the Aborigines of the ranges would do so, and often did ̶ a surprising fact when it is considered how dependant their lives were on their water sources. They would sometimes contaminate a rock pool with poison bush. Wildlife coming in to drink at the pool would fall victim. A small animal would die, but a larger one would stagger about and would be easily seized as food. The poisoned entrails were the only parts of the animal which were discarded. Early prospectors believed that not only wildlife was targeted in this way, but that sometimes water holes were deliberately poisoned to kill the invading whites and their camels.
The relationship between the natives and white prospectors was always an uneasy and sometimes a volatile one. There were clashes over scarce desert water resources, and a general inability on both sides to understand the opposite point of view. This was a meeting of two cultures each completely alien to the other. The desert Aborigines were an incredible people, able to survive in a harsh environment where many a European perished of thirst and starvation. The whites who entered that area had to take with them large water containers to carry them over from gnamma hole to soak, and enough food supplies to last them for many months, hence the large camel trains. The desert tribes became alarmed when scarce water supplies were swallowed up by camels, for one thirsty camel that has been without water for a week or two can drink 200 litres in one go! On the other hand, the natives soon developed a taste for the white man’s food, and raided those supplies whenever they could.
Richard Lugg wrote, in a report which was published soon after his Livesey Range trip with Sam:
Our policy throughout was to acknowledge that the water was the blacks’, not ours, and they were given free access to it at all times and were supplied with it very often … Our experience with the natives was that they are a childlike, kindly folk as a general rule, and though shy in the extreme at first, very trusting when once convinced of the party’s bona-fides. They willingly and eagerly showed us water in the gnamma holes, or sand holes, their much prized ‘gabble cabbie’ ̶ rock water ̶ or ‘bunatallie cabbie’ ̶ sand water ̶ and one is forced to ask himself the question whether a community of whites would have been as generous to a party of visiting blacks. A team of camels would empty any ordinary gnamma hole, and well the natives, or some of them, know it. Disclosing its whereabouts was, therefore, an example of great generosity. We were not saved from perishing by this kindliness; we never looked like perishing, but it showed the good will of the natives.2
Sam spoke the language of the tribes where he usually ventured and so was not dependant on “pidgin” English, with all its uncertainties, when gleaning information from them. But he was well aware of their propensity for untruthfulness and storytelling, letting their imaginations run away with their veracity. Richard Lugg reckoned that this was not with any evil intent, but sometimes because they misunderstood a question, and sometimes because of their desire to please, to say what they thought the white man wanted to hear.
Sam’s opinion of Central Australian Aborigines, and of missionaries, is made clear in this newspaper item from 1935. By then Sam had made seven separate trips since 1930, starting from Laverton and travelling out to the Warburton Range, then branching out in different directions, and prospecting for hundreds of miles farther on each occasion. Today his opinions may seem harsh and racist, but it is important to understand Sam’s thinking on these matters; and his opinions, born of long experience, must be considered when we deal later with the Aboriginal stories discussed in Chapter 24.
Mr. Hazlett has found, through experience, that the aborigines are most dangerous when they come under the influence of white people. They are naturally lazy ̶ they will walk 20 miles [thirty-two kilometres] or so to a water soak rather than clean out one they come across ̶ and when they become half civilised, they will not do anything for themselves, and will steal anything they can get hold of. For these and other reasons, Mr. Hazlett strongly disapproves of the efforts of missionaries to interfere with the Central Australian aborigines. He contends that the missionaries, who know little about either the aborigines or the existing conditions, do more harm than good. He had seen aborigines who have been supplied with clothes for the first time wearing heavy coats and other garments through the heat of the day, and taking them off when they went to sleep at night. The result was that many of them caught bad colds, some developing pneumonia; and more than once he has had to use practically his whole supply of cough medicine in trying to cure them. When aborigines come to the mission stations, and are provided with flour and other provisions without having to exert themselves, they become disinclined to do anything for themselves, and go back to the interior to bring in their relatives to share their good fortune. The aborigines, also, have little regard for the truth, and if the person dealing with them does not know their nature he is likely to lead himself into trouble. It would be far better, Mr. Hazlett claims, if the missionaries concentrated their activities on helping those half-starved aborigines and half-castes who are always to be seen around the nearer mining centres, rather than impose themselves upon the aborigines in Central Australia, who are quite contented in their native surroundings.3
Just before an expedition in early 1936, Sam gave this further opinion:
The idea that our blacks respond to kindness and are grateful for fair treatment is all eyewash … Such has not been my experience. I have cut spears out of them, and attended to other wounds acquired in tribal strife. I have cured them of snake bite, given them provisions when they were starving and done everything that a man could. Grateful? No; the same fellows would hover round our camp at night, steal what they could, and spear us if they could do so without taking undue risks. Having done what you could for them, that closes the incident. While I am not advocating cruelty, it is a fact that they do not respond to kindness.4
In a later interview not long before his death in 1942, Sam had another dig at the missionaries:
Many murders of blacks have been caused by interference with the native marriage laws … Children are promised to each other in marriage while they are still babies. Another aborigine will come along, steal the lubra, take her to a mission and marry her by our laws. Very often blood is spilled when the lubra’s original husband catches up with the eloping couple.5
It is very apparent that the resuming of his pastoral lease for a native reserve, without any compensation from the authorities, triggered a great change in Sam. For him personally, all the work he had done on making his road profited him nothing. From then on he became very secretive. Any prospector is secretive about where he encounters good prospects, but this was something more. Whereas in the past he gladly passed on information about good water sources, now he clammed up on all information about where he was going and what he was finding. This attitude led to his later reputation as a mystery man. Nicolas Rothwell, who years later travelled in Central Australia, after referring to the Western Australian travels of Frank Hann, wrote of Sam:
Hann’s travels were soon outdone by an even less heralded explorer, Sam Hazlett, the camel man, whose traverses remain unmatched to this day.
Rothwell referred to Sam being speared in 1904, and continued:
… the precise causes underlying his misfortune, like almost everything about his life, remain unclear … There are no romantic narratives of his progress; indeed written records barely mention him, though his name is still remembered, and still feared, in the Ngaanyatjarra lands.6
Feared? This may seem a strange word to be used in reference to the beloved “Goonji.” Strange, that is, to anyone unaware of the complications of race relations in Central Australia at that time. As mentioned earlier, Sam could be doctoring Aboriginal men in daylight, and then be raided by them at spear-point that night. Two or three white men in a far-off desert, surrounded by dozens of spearmen, could not have survived without their guns, and occasionally they had to use them. Accounts of such skirmishes were seldom if ever written down. The most Sam would say to the press was that the natives in such-and-such a district were “very cheeky.”
Nina and the girls would have worried themselves sick if they had been fully aware of the facts, so such matters were not discussed at home. Talking to a reporter in 1938, Sam’s daughter Billie (Irene Maddaford), speaking of her brother Chub at a time when it was rumoured he may have been speared, said:
“Both Sam and his father were wonderful with the natives. They could get them to do anything for them.”7
I can’t believe anything has happened to “Chub,” he is so strong and sure of himself … Sometimes he says he is going away for six months, but we do not worry if he does not come back for 12 months … We hear from father regularly, but he never mentioned anything about “Chub’s” absence. He would know that mother would worry about it, and would not tell us to save her anxiety. The first I knew was when I read the paper this morning.8
The womenfolk were not usually told of dangers that might worry them in their menfolk’s absence.
Regarding race relations, the views of Sam’s day were very different from our own, and the actions of people then cannot be judged by our values now. When I was quite young, I once said to an old-timer that the white man had no right to march in and take over the land from the Aborigines. He fairly bristled as he replied, “The white man had every right to take the land, because the Aborigine did not make any attempt to develop the land to its full potential. The mining and pastoral and agricultural wealth of today is the result of the white man’s work, and his efforts feed this nation.”
Richard Lugg, who was very sympathetic to Aboriginal people, included this line in his report referred to above:
The law of the survival of the fittest is inexorable, and with white occupation the native race finally disappears, but it is doubtful whether this will happen as far as this State is concerned for the next century or perhaps longer.
These were the views of Sam’s generation.
- Personal letter from Stan Gratte postmarked March 8, 2015
- The West Australian, December 28, 1932, p. 7
- Western Mail, Perth, May 30, 1935, p. 50
- South Western Advertiser, Perth, February 14, 1936, p. 5
- The Daily News, Perth, February 7, 1942, p. 8
- Rothwell, Nicolas, Wings of the Kite Hawk: a Journey to the Heart of Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 314-315
- The Daily News, Perth, May 31, 1938, p. 1
- The Daily News, Perth, May 28, 1938, p. 1
Chapter 15 – Toole and Krim Sattah
In 1934 an unemployed man in Leonora named H. Toole came upon two men about to attack an Afghan. He intervened, and saved the Afghan from serious harm. The grateful Afghan, Abdul Krim Sattah, invited Toole out to a pastoral holding east of Laverton where he was running some cattle.
Krim Sattah was on very friendly terms with the local Aborigines, for he treated them for sore eyes and other minor complaints. They often brought him specimens showing gold, but he had never chased up the source of these because as an Asiatic he was not permitted to hold a miner’s right. These were the days of the “White Australia Policy.”
But now, with Toole involved, there was the possibility of developing any find. The two men with four camels and an Aboriginal guide headed into the desert to find the source of the gold. It was a hellish journey in a very dry season, and only two of their camels survived it. After two months they reappeared in Laverton and were said to have shown around some rich specimens, although the local newspaper representative could not find anyone who had actually seen these.
Toole and Krim Sattah, uncertain what to do next, sought help from an educated Afghan (or Indian?) in Kalgoorlie, a businessman and herbalist named Amir Shah. The result was that Shah used Toole to approach the Mines Department seeking a reservation of eighty-one hectares at the find, which was said to be a twenty-four metre long outcrop showing free gold, somewhere between the Warburton and Rawlinson Ranges in the heart of Lasseter’s country.
Around Laverton and Kalgoorlie scepticism was rampant, for the Whelan fiasco was still fresh in people’s memories. But still, there were mining men who discussed a plan to fly to the area in order to check it out. The use of aeroplanes to inspect remote gold finds was becoming more common, especially since Western Australia’s Western Mining Corporation had begun to employ aerial survey planes.
An interesting sidelight on the Toole-Krim Sattah find was the locating of some relics in the desert. The Hazlett-Laver story of the supposed Leichhardt relics was well known to all in Laverton. When first on their way to the gold reef, Toole and Krim Sattah questioned their native guide about the iron box and bones, and he replied he knew where those relics were. Even though their camels at that stage had been without water for three or four days, they decided to travel about 160 kilometres out of their way to investigate his story. This additional side-trip may well have been what cost two of the camels their lives. On reaching the spot, Toole found some bones and a piece of harness leather, but there was nothing more. Their Aboriginal guide, with a child-like desire to please, had magnified these items into the iron box, wagon wheels, and bones of the well-known story. The objects located by Toole, it was eventually decided, were merely the remains of some prospector’s lost camel.
Curiously, the story of Toole and Krim Sattah’s gold reef ends there. It dropped out of the newspapers, and no more was heard of it.1
- These newspaper reports are the basis for the Toole story: Kalgoorlie Miner, October 13, 1934, p. 7; The Mail, Adelaide, October 27, 1934, p. 1; Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Qld, October 29, 1934, p. 7; The West Australian, Perth, November 10, 1934, p. 18, and November 12, 1934, p. 10; The Daily News, Perth, November 10, 1934, p. 16
Chapter 16 – New Horizons
While the newspapers of October and November 1934 were tossing around the rumours and stories of Toole and the Afghans, Sam Hazlett was engaged in an utterly different venture. By 1934 he considered he had examined thoroughly the area including the Warburton, Tomkinson, Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges, and was casting his eye northwards.
Very early in the twentieth century gold was being brought in from the desert areas of The Granites and Tanami. In the 1920s Jimmy Wickham had disappeared into the border region west and south-west from there, and reappeared with a bag of rich gold samples which set the mining world agog. He was soon financed into another trip, but he could never find his reef again. Others followed him, and they couldn’t find it, either. But explorer Michael Terry found one of his camps.
Not far from Lake Mackay, Terry found the remains of a camp made with a circle of bloodwood poles cut with a sharp axe, their tops all leaning in towards the centre. A ground sheet wrapped around the poles like a wigwam would make such an arrangement a dry camp, and this peculiar form of tent was used only by Jimmy Wickham. As far as Terry was concerned, here was proof that Wickham had reached as far as Lake Mackay, though Wickham was disbelieved.
In 1932 and 1933, Michael Terry had pushed westward from Tanami to the Western Australian border and explored the lakes thereabouts. He discovered two unknown lakes between Lake White and Lake Mackay and named them Lake Wills and Lake Hazlett, after K.A.Wills and his old friend Sam.1 His map of these lakes is shown in the Map Gallery, Map 3.
Sam and Chub decided to explore and prospect from the Rawlinson Range northwards past the east side of Lake Mackay and up into the Kimberleys. This was fearful country to traverse, but they were chasing Wickham’s gold. To the press they would only say that they were pushing far beyond the Warburtons and searching again for the Leichhardt relics, which were, Sam intimated, not where Toole had found his bones and leather.
Financed by a group calling themselves the Centennial Syndicate, the party consisted of Sam, Chub, Keith Holt and Jeff Bordini of Kalgoorlie, and an Aborigine. They left Laverton in July 1934 and headed north-east. Passing Gill Pinnacle, they travelled north through drought-stricken desert country. Sam later told how he discovered that rabbits can climb trees. If ground feed is scarce and there is sufficient slope on the tree, a rabbit will climb it to reach the foliage. He found many skeletons of rabbits that had been caught and held in trees when in search of food.
Sometimes the party travelled over vast sand plains alternating with desert oaks. Sometimes they encountered great sand ridges nine to fifteen metres high and little more than ninety metres apart. The Daily News in Perth was later to report:
As a contrast, at another stage of the journey a big salt lake system had to be negotiated. The camel train was taken by winding ways along the raised ground between the lakes, but in places the dry beds had to be crossed. Here the thin crust of dry clay several times proved insufficient to carry the weight of the camels, which were dangerously bogged. Then the party had to unload the packs and carry them piecemeal to firm ground before extricating the frightened camels.2
Lack of water became a real problem, but then disaster struck. In this feed-scarce country, somewhere near Lake Hopkins the camels found Gastrolobium to eat, the desert poison bush, which weakened them severely. They could no longer walk in the daytime, but had to be rested, and then travelled by night. Chub was later to tell how they doctored them: a teaspoon of Condy’s Crystals was stirred into a prospecting dish of water, all the water they could spare, and given to each sick camel to drink. This medicine, and night travel, enabled the party to retrace their steps for 320 kilometres without water. Of the seventeen camels, three died from the poison bush and sheer exhaustion. Afterwards, a Perth newspaper reported:
When the party finally turned back they were five days’ travel from the last water, and there was no known supply ahead. In his 40 years’ experience of the interior, Mr. Hazlett has made it a rule never to travel more than five days from certain water ̶ a rule to which he attributes his survival through so many hazardous journeys, and, though some of the younger members of the party were anxious to take a chance and push on in the hope of finding water, the leader decided to turn back. Rain threatened twice at the critical stage, but not enough fell to wet a handkerchief.3
The truth of what happened in the way of prospecting work during Sam’s travels is hard to get at, because of his intense secrecy. The party arrived back at Laverton just before Christmas 1934, and it was rumoured they had found promising mineral indications, and several promising reefs. But never did Sam mention just where they had prospected or what minerals they had found. On the other hand, he would go into great detail on “touristy” matters. They had met some strange native tribes, he said, some of whom had apparently never seen white men before. In one tribe, practically every member was affected with cysts over the eyes or carbuncles on the neck, and he speculated that perhaps this was the result of eating infected rabbits. In another tribe the men had a peculiar fashion of dressing their beards into long points hanging almost to their waists. Once again he would spin the tale of how very soon, as soon as he could finance another expedition, he would make another attempt to reach the spot where the Leichhardt relics were said to lie in the desert. Apparently, this was now in the direction of the Tanami Desert!
Reporters seeking prospecting details were easily distracted by such matters as a discussion of Sam’s dogs. Sam usually had one or more cattle dogs that travelled in a kind of tent set up on a riding camel. In this way they were rested during the day, so were alert and good watch dogs for the camp at night. No Aborigine, no matter how skilful or stealthy, could surprise the camp with a night raid when Sam’s dogs were around.
Not only did Sam need spectacles, but as he became older he became increasingly hard of hearing. About 1938, his grandson, Geoff Wells, went with his mother Peggy and his sister Margaret to visit Sam and Nina in Perth. Geoff’s brother, Keith, had died, and Peggy needed some family time. Sam came in from the desert for about ten days to see them. A shy eight year old, Geoff asked Sam to tell him some of his adventures. Sam cupped a hand to his ear and bellowed, “Eh? What d’ye say? What d’ye say?” Poor Geoff was too timid to take it further, and missed out on hearing a story. Sam really needed those dogs in the desert!
- Chronicle, Adelaide, March 8, 1934, p. 2
- The Daily News, Perth, March 16, 1935, p. 15
Chapter 17 – The Great Trek of 1935
Though driven back by drought, Sam was not giving up on the Wickham’s gold area. He believed that with good organization he could get through to the Kimberleys from the Rawlinsons. After only a few months delay, Sam and Chub set out once more with just one other white man named J. Maitland. They had seventeen camels, large water canteens, and £100 worth of food supplies. They left Laverton on April 17, 1935, and kept travelling for eight months.
Unusually, we have Sam’s own written report of this remarkable journey which was published in a Perth newspaper in mid-1936. It was probably written by Sam for Nina’s personal scrap book, and perhaps she arranged for its publication. Once again, it reads like a tourist jaunt, though with unusual hardships. When reading it, remember that in addition to the struggles described, these men were working hard at prospecting the cruel lands they passed through. Here is the story in Sam’s own words:
“We set out from Laverton and made to Cooper’s Creek, where we got a plentiful supply of water in a rock hole at the head of the creek. On the Livesey Ranges we met a tribe of friendly natives who told us that they were ‘dogging’ (hunting dingoes) for the Warburton Mission, and selling the scalps, which are worth £1 a head, to the mission in exchange for flour.
“We passed the south end of the Blackstone Range, where there had been good rains and plenty of green food so the camels could do without water. From there we journeyed along the east side of Lake Hopkins and Lake McDonald [sic], the country around being covered with camel poison, which can be either scrub or bush.
“A few days later we came across some tracks, which we followed into a soak between two big hills. We scooped down about 19 ft. [5.8 metres], and knocked the top and bottom out of a 40 gallon [182 litre] drum, and sank it down to hold the sand back. The water percolated in and so we gave the camels a full drink of water.
“From there we went to Lake Mackay, where we saw chains of clay pans (treacherous, boggy country), and huge paperbark trees. We travelled along the side of the lake for some distance, and then saw some tracks of natives which we followed to a good soak. It might be mentioned that the water of the lakes is far too salt for either the camels or ourselves to drink. As we had 17 camels, a good supply of water was needed, and from then we journeyed for 12 days without seeing a sign of drinkable water.
“Perhaps some of the hardships of this journey can be partly realised when one sees the thermometer reach 140 degrees [60 degrees Celsius] in the shade. And even the rubber soles of our boots began to melt off! Should the camels have to kneel to have their loads shifted, it is impossible for them to stay kneeling for more than a couple of minutes, for so intense is the heat of the ground, that it even penetrates their tough skins!
“Just at sunset a tall and well-built native fully 6 ft. 6 in. [1.98 metres] arrived at the camp nigh on perishing for a drink of water. We gave him a billy of water and some meat and damper, and he showed his regard for ‘white man’s food’ by eating the meat and throwing away the damper. In way of return payment, he told us of another good water hole further to the east, and so next day we set out with our huge guide. He killed a long snake and then a spinifex rat, and an eagle caught before dinner.
“We tried to persuade him to hold the snake while we photographed him. But he thought we meant to kill him with some ‘devil-devil,’ so he warned us all his mates would come and kill us should we so much as lay hands on him.
“I went up to him with the camera in my hand to try to explain what we wanted. He clenched the camera with one hand and my shoulder with the other. Then suddenly he let go and ran for his life for about half a mile [0.8 kilometre], and to prevent us from tracking him he would jump along from one spinifex shrub to the next one.
“The natives around here looked in great condition, and there [sic] main food were yams anything from eight to 12 feet [2.4 to 3.7 metres] long, and which taste like a sweet potato. We shot them a lot of Major Mitchell parrots and went on to Godfrey’s Tank near the Canning Stock Route, which we followed up past the 48 Tank to Billiluna Station.
“It was quite a treat to see the mobs of big, fat cattle watering on the lagoons, and also flocks of ducks and native companions. For two days we travelled through the run before we met the manager, Mr. Dick Rowan, and a half-caste, with 20 smart native boys and 40 horses. This was on September 11, and perhaps you can imagine how glad we were to see them, as Rowan was the first white man we had seen since we left Laverton nearly five months previously!
“Rowan, who proved a delightful companion during a stay of two days with him, took charge about 13 years ago when the natives murdered the previous manager and stockman. When we arrived at their place it was very interesting to watch the native boys bronchoing the cattle. One boy lassoed 20 cattle without missing once, and this is not bad going considering the way the cattle twist and turn when cornered. All the boys are very happy, but it is their ambition to have a trip down to Wiluna with the drovers.
“Billiluna Station runs to within about 130 miles [209 kilometres] of Hall’s Creek, and this was the furthest North we went. Then commenced the long trek back to Laverton via the Canning Stock Route.
“Undoubtedly the wells and equipment are a tribute to the late A.W. Canning (he died just recently). Some of the windlass stands are cut out of desert oak and are as good as the day they were put there. Some of the natives we encountered ran for their lives when seeing our party of three and the 17 camels, and others sent up smoke signals from both sides of the Route that strange whites were about.
“On one occasion we topped a sand-hill and saw a native and a small piccaninny going the same way as we were. When the native saw us, he lay down on the spinifex, and when we called out to him, he still lay there. So we turned the camels to go over to him, and the big coward jumped up and ran away and left the shivering little kiddy. Had it been a native woman, she would have stuck to the kid to the bitter end.
“Later we passed Tobin’s lonely grave (one of Canning’s men who was speared). The blacks also murdered the first lot of drovers that came down. At last we came to Weld Springs and saw an old camp of the late Lord Forrest. The walls of his barricade around his camp are still standing, and are about four feet [1.2 metres] high. Just near this barricade is an old cork tree with Forrest’s name cut on it, which was nearly blowing over.
“About 120 miles [193 kilometres] from Wiluna, we turned off the stock route and made for Granite Peak Station, from there across to Wongawol, and then from Duke Town to Laverton, where we arrived on December 20, 1935.”1
The incident involving the unusually tall Aborigine was described a little differently by Chub at a later time. In the mid-to-late 1940s a writer named J.K. Ewers heard of these tall natives and interviewed Chub about them at Chub’s home at Palm Springs out from Halls Creek. Here is Ewers’ account of that interview:
“I believe you found some blacks seven-foot tall, Sam?”
“Who’s been telling you?” he asked.
I explained and he said, “Well they’re there all right.”
“In the Lake Mackay country. I was through there in 1935 with the dad and a string of eighteen camels.”
The late Sam Hazlett senior was one of the best known explorer-prospectors in Western Australia in recent times. Young Sam did many trips with him, and he hinted at the presence of some rare minerals in the desert country to the south-east of the Kimberleys.
“We camped one night at a soak,” he went on. “It was bone dry so we had some supper and a drink of tea and were lying back when something black went by in a hurry. Yes, he was hurrying all right, making straight for the soak. He had no weapons and it seemed as if he hadn’t seen us at all, although he must have done.”
“ ‘That cove’s perishing,’ said the dad, ‘but he won’t find anything there.’
“He didn’t, either. But as he came back we called to him and he stood there looking at us. He was the biggest blackfellow I’ve ever seen ̶ seven-foot [2.13 metres] tall if he was an inch. But he was obviously doing a perish. His eyes were hollow and he was dog-poor. The dad took him half a kerosene-tin of water and he flattened it out in one long drink ̶ the water I mean, not the tin. We tried to talk to him but his lingo was strange. However, after a bit he gave us to understand he’d take us to a soak next day.
“He camped that night with us, and next morning we set off with the eighteen camels. Eight miles [12.9 kilometres] it was over sandhill country. Suddenly we came over the top of a hill and there was a mob of about forty blackfellows. They hadn’t seen camels before and made a grab for their spears. For a few minutes things looked pretty ugly, but our bloke ran forward shouting out to them, and in no time four of them collected all the weapons and made a heap of them on the ground.
“They were all seven-footers and well built, with feet this size.” Sam held his hands apart like any good fisherman.
“And the women too?” I asked.
“No, they were average size. But I’ve never seen any blackfellows as big and as wild-looking as those men were.”
“What tribe were they?”
Sam shrugged his shoulders. “That I don’t know, and no more does anyone else.”
“Haven’t the anthropologists given them a name?”
I knew it was a foolish question as soon as I asked it. But Sam said simply, “They’ve never seen ‘em. No one’s ever seen ‘em except me and the dad. But they’re there all right. This year one of them wandered into the Pallottine Mission south of Billiluna. You ask Father Alphonse. He was in Hall’s Creek the other day.”
I nodded. I had met him on my way north but had not at that time heard the strange story. I did not see Father Alphonse again, but I wrote to him after I got home. He expressed doubt as to a tribe of seven-foot natives, but said about five years ago there was a native at the mission the tallest he had ever seen. He did not take his measurements at the time but estimated him to be six foot ten inches [2.08 metres]. He had not seen him lately and had heard that he was dead but his brother was there and, when measured, proved to be six foot two inches [1.88 metres]. Even this fellow seemed exceptionally tall, Father Alphonse said, because the average height of the men thereabouts was between five foot eight inches [1.73 metres] and five foot ten inches [1.78 metres]. The two taller natives belonged to the Goolagadugurr tribe living south and south-east of the mission ̶ which was the direction of Lake Mackay and the country of which Sam Hazlett had spoken.
So we must leave Sam’s story for further corroboration until we are more familiar with that desert country where few men venture. I am convinced that he told it with absolute sincerity and was not merely drawing the long bow for the benefit of a stranger in the Kimberleys. He had seen something that had made a deep impression on him ̶ but seven foot is tall for any man, black or white. Tall natives are by no means uncommon in the north, but that such a tribe should exist in the dry inland where food and water are scarce seems remarkable. 2
Sam’s exploration party was not out of danger once they arrived on the Canning Stock Route, for the extremely dry conditions had caused the Aboriginal tribes to congregate at that route’s permanent waters, and they were, Sam said, “very cheeky.” Snakes also congregated at the wells, and Sam described how, at one well, thirty snakes had darted at his bucket as he lowered it. One Aboriginal man suffered three snakebites when descending a well for water in the native way. Sam went over to the native camp and found him with one leg very swollen and as hard as a board. After Sam had treated him, the man quickly recovered.3
It was possibly the return to Laverton from the great trip in 1935 which was the return described in the diary of Mary Atkinson, wife of metallurgist Leslie C. Atkinson of Laverton. Mrs Atkinson thought Sam was coming in from Oodnadatta, though the diary makes clear she was not certain. At the moment we do not have a date for this diary entry, but the suggestion is 1935. It reads:
Old Sam Hazlett with son “young” Sam brought a camel exploratory team across from Oodnadatta (I think it was) taking several months. On arrival they camped at Skull Creek just out of Laverton. We saw their dust trail in the distance and I charged out in our Essex car and took snaps by my Brownie box camera. Fine men and true explorers. The camels were all “in good nick” and so were the Sams altho’ thin and tanned dark brown from the long trek.
Mrs Atkinson’s daughter, Dawn Merrall, who kindly provided this diary note, tells me her mother always said that someone (she meant the State) should place a memorial to Sam at Skull Creek because of the incredible trip he made. Mrs Atkinson’s photo, though only a snapshot taken with a Kodak “Brownie” box camera, is a fascinating record of that moment (see it in this website’s Picture Gallery).4
The route taken on this eight month journey is shown in Map 4 in the Map Gallery.
As a matter of interest, all desert prospectors experienced a great scarcity of water. Often none could be spared for washing clothes or bodies. One cannot help wondering whether the tans sported by Sam and Chub were from the sun or from the desert grime!
- Sunday Times, Perth, July 12, 1936, p. 19
- Ewers, J.K., With the Sun on My Back, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1953, p. 136 ff.
- Kalgoorlie Miner, January 18, 1936, p. 1
- Personal letters and photo from Dawn Merrall dated March 10, 2015, and April 26, 2015
Chapter 18 – Hummerston and Cutlack
While Sam was engaged in his long expedition into Wickham’s territory, another sensational story erupted in Lasseter’s country. This exploit, together with the official reaction to it, was really the thing which, to the general public, permanently destroyed the credibility of Lasseter’s story and causes it to be labelled a “myth” to this very day.
A prospector named Stanley Hummerston appeared in Sydney with a thrilling tale. He said he had written a letter to a Sydney newspaper in June 1933 warning of the dangers facing inexperienced prospectors who ventured into Central Australia. He said his letter was read in Europe by one Fritz Mueller who contacted him some months later, sending some gold specimens and a map which had been left to him by his father. The father had been a well-known explorer in Western Australia before World War 1. To this day, the name Mueller is found on various features across Western Australian maps. The son, Fritz, asked Hummerston to investigate his father’s rich gold find, and left it to Stan to protect his interests in the matter. The map indicated the find was in Lasseter’s country.
Stan Hummerston claimed he had gone out searching, and in the process had come upon a tree marked by Lasseter. He had dug beneath the ashes of Lasseter’s campfire nearby, and unearthed a sauce bottle containing gold specimens and a map drawn by Lasseter himself. Lo and behold! The locations of Mueller’s gold reef and Lasseter’s gold reef were identical! So Stan went straight to the reef. Visible on the surface was at least £100,000 worth of gold, he said.
Hummerston got together with a journalist in Sydney named Morley Cutlack, who fancied himself as a “mining man.” They set up Border Gold Reefs Ltd, a company with capital of £5,000 consisting of one hundred shares of £50 each, and twenty or thirty subsidiary companies which could be called on for further funds. In December 1934 and January 1935, Cutlack made sure the story was in lots of newspapers, and with pictures! A photo showing Hummerston squatting with the just-unearthed sauce bottle looks a little suspicious when he and the man standing beside him are nattily dressed with fashionable shirt collars showing above cardigans. But that didn’t seem to worry Sydney investors, for the £50 shares were quickly changing hands for £250 and the news was flooding around Australia that Lasseter’s reef was found.1
With two motor trucks and a car, from February to October 1935 Hummerston led a party back to the find, making a road out to the reef, he said, and bringing back samples. (Later it emerged that only Hummerston had actually seen the reef on this trip; the rest of the party didn’t get close.) About 3 kilograms of specimens showing rich gold in white quartz were brought back to Sydney. Border Gold Reefs Ltd now held a temporary reservation covering an area with a radius of 161 kilometres centring on Mount Giles, aka Gill Pinnacle.
On November 1, 1935, North Border Gold Reefs Ltd (evidently one of the many subsidiary companies) issued a circular to shareholders stating that a road had been made out to the reef, making it possible to reach the reef in eight days from Alice Springs.
In April 1936 Border Gold Reefs Ltd sent out a bigger expedition with Hummerston as leader, accompanied by the Western Australian Government Geologist, Mr H.A. Ellis. However, Hummerston became “indisposed” and the party soon returned to Alice Springs. Rex Cousins, the second in command, took over as leader, setting out again on June 3rd.
Next, Cutlack arranged for himself and a hired geologist, Dr Guy Harris, to be flown out to Central Australia by Pat Hall, the pilot who had flown Lasseter over his reef in 1930. Two planes flew out. The plan was for the land party under Cousins to take Government Geologist Ellis to the reef, while Pat Hall would fly Cutlack, Harris, and in the event Stan Hummerston too, over the reef to locate it. There was a delay of the land party through the disablement of one of the trucks. But the plane with Cutlack flew over the reef in mid-June, and Cutlack shot off this telegram to the company in Sydney:
Plane with Dr Guy Harris, Hummerston and self succeeded in reaching and flying over reef this morning. Dr Harris so impressed decided to stay with Ellis and go out with truck. Ellis delighted with our efforts. Venture must now end successfully. Harris has taken definite position of reef, and trucks should reach reef within week.2
But in early July, the land party returned to Alice Springs, and geologist Ellis shot off this telegram to the Western Australian Minister for Mines, Mr S.W. Munsie:
Reached locality indicated from aeroplane by Hummerston in latitude 24.24 south and longitude 128.10 east. Country for many miles all directions current bedded sandstone. Post gold. No reef exists. No possibility metalliferous rock.3
Newspaper headlines trumpeted:
LASSETER’S REEF IS ONLY “A SANDSTONE RIDGE”4
The Western Australian Government cancelled the Border Gold Reefs Ltd reservation.
- The Mail, Adelaide, December 29, 1934, p. 8; Canberra Times, January 2, 1935; p. 3; Huon and Derwent Times, Tasmania, January 10, 1935, p. 4
- The Daily News, Perth, June 19, 1936, p. 1
- Western Mail, Perth, July 9, 1936, p. 30
- The Daily News, Perth, July 7, 1936, p. 1
Chapter 19 – Cutlack and the Puzzled Investor
No more was heard of Stanley Hummerston. Like Paddy Whelan, at this point he disappears from history. But Morley Cutlack was a cool customer. With a portfolio of maps, diagrams and other records, and with Dr Guy Harris in tow, in mid-August 1936 he arrived in Perth to see Mines Minister Munsie. He was seeking an extension of the company’s reservation. He told the press that Lasseter’s reef was not a myth; that forty-eight kilometres east of where Ellis and the land party had seen and investigated an east-west sand ridge the aerial party had seen a north-south outcrop some thirteen to fourteen kilometres long. Ellis had not seen this outcrop. Cutlack said the next expedition would be well equipped with motor transport and should a gold-bearing reef be discovered aeroplanes would then be used for transportation. Dr Harris said the outcrop marked a geological change in the country which warranted investigation.1
A few days later, a puzzled investor signing himself “Spinifex” had a delightful letter in The West Australian. He drew attention to the Company’s circular issued in late 1935:
Sir, ̶ I notice from recent reports, that Lasseter’s Reef has come to life again … Why have these aeroplanes been out looking for the “reef” when the directors of Border Gold Reefs frankly tell us that it has been located, and a road made to it? … It gives me a headache trying to worry out why, with gold at £(A)8/12/ approximately an ounce, this wonderful reef to which Border Gold Reefs have a road made (see circular to shareholders …) is not yet in the producing stage. According to this prospectus, the “reef” has been found long ago, and a road was made to it last year. It seems strange to me that Mr. Cutlack is now talking of taking out another expedition to inspect something which he states may be the reef … The lot of the mining investor is indeed a very difficult one, when faced with the facts outlined above.2
Two days later Mines Minister Munsie announced that he had refused the request made by Cutlack and Harris to extend the period of reservation of the “Lasseter Reef” country. Furthermore, he released to the press the full text of Government Geologist Ellis’s report to the Minister for Mines. Newspaper headlines in Perth shrieked:
LASSETER’S ‘REEF’: SCATHING REPORT. CHARGES FRAUD, SAYS ROAD AND REEF ARE MYTHS. FRAUDULENT CLAIM.3
The full text of Ellis’s report as published that day read as follows:
(1) Since every opportunity was afforded the agents of Border Gold Reefs Ltd. to take me to the “reef” to which there was supposed to be a “road,” and they were not able to produce either a “reef” or a “road” to it after several months of futile journeying, then it is a reasonable conclusion that both the “reef” and the “road” were mythical things.
(2) The formation in the desert pointed out by Hummerston from an aeroplane as being his “reef,” and the position of which was accurately fixed and unmistakably reached by me proved to be a barren sandstone ridge. His claim to having found and pegged a rich gold reef at this locality is therefore fraudulent.
(3) From the Western Australian border out to this locality there were no old tracks, and we cut new tracks in the desert from the end of Hummerston’s old 1935 tracks at the Docker River, just south of the Docker Gap, right out to this alleged “reef.” The leader of the party (Cousins), who cut these fresh tracks, was supposed to know where the “reef” was and to have been to it in 1935 with Hummerston, and to have helped to make the “road” to it. The claim to having a “road” made to the “reef” is therefore fraudulent.
(4) The reappearance of Hummerston with the aeroplanes at the Petermann Range is inconsistent with the information conveyed to the West Australian Mines Department by Border Gold Reefs Ltd., that after the return of the first expedition on May 18, 1936, Hummerston was no longer connected with the company. Evidence points to the conclusion that the arrangement for Hummerston to subsequently point out the “reef” from an aeroplane was made before he left Alice Springs for Adelaide in May.
(5) Cousins must have presumed to have known where the “reef” was or otherwise he would not have been placed in charge of the second expedition by Border Gold Reefs Ltd.
(6) Conclusions 4 and 5 point to collusion between Border Gold Reefs Ltd., Hummerston and Cousins.
(7) The use of aeroplanes was not necessary in view of the fact that a “road” was supposed to have been made to the “reef” (see North Border Gold Reefs circular to shareholders), and the only conclusion that can be arrived at is that the scheme to report the sighting of the “reef” from the aeroplane while the investigating geologists were making their way out to it, was to enhance share values.
(8) The failure of Hummerston, the alleged discoverer, to accompany the ground party to the alleged “reef” points to the conclusion that this claim was fraudulent.
(9) The Petermann Range, although composed of possible gold-bearing rocks, is not a very promising gold-bearing formation. The country to the north and north-west of it for hundreds of miles has no possible chance of containing gold reef, being composed of vast areas of sand ridges and occasional low sandstone ranges, belonging to a series of unmetamorphosed sedimentary rocks which have never in their history been subjected to conditions necessary to the formation of ore deposits in them. 4
In spite of all this, it does not appear that any court proceedings were brought against Cutlack or Hummerston. Any other promoter would have felt thoroughly humiliated, but not Morley Cutlack. Deciding that he had mined Sydney investors’ pockets for as much as he could get, he moved camp to Brisbane. In January 1937 it was announced that a small Brisbane company formed by a stockbroker, an architect, a solicitor, and journalist Morley Cutlack, was mounting another aerial and land search. A Qantas plane piloted by Captain Lester Brain, the flight superintendent of Qantas, would fly Cutlack, Guy Harris and famous Sydney author Frank Clune out to the reef. Yes, they knew Western Australian Government officials and mining men considered the reef a myth. Yes, they were aware the last expedition had lost between £10,000 and £12,000. But off they went. Cutlack must have been an incredibly persuasive fellow!5
By February, Dr Harris had to admit there was no gold there:
The lost reef is a fable, and it would be better to forget it … I can state now that the entire area reputed to contain the reef has been scientifically examined with negative results. Any future expeditions will be just so much a waste of time and money.6
The chairman of the little Brisbane company stated that it was purely a private one. At no time had the public been asked to subscribe. He said the capital for the venture had been raised among a few personal friends who wished to investigate a theory. They had gone out to look, found nothing there, and all were satisfied.7
But, perhaps not strangely, Morley Cutlack was now enthusiastic about another area which Dr Harris had spotted on the journey home. Maybe the reef was there!
- The West Australian, Perth, August 17, 1936, p. 20
- The West Australian, Perth, August 22, 1936, p. 21
- The Daily News, Perth, August 24, 1936, p. 1
- The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, January 4, 1937, p. 11
- The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, February 5, 1937, p. 13
Chapter 20 – Official Reaction
There was by now considerable angst amongst the authorities, both State and Federal, that Lasseter reef enthusiasm and the number of small planes getting into trouble in remote desert areas were costing the government too much money. In 1929, Keith Anderson and Bob Hitchcock in their little plane, Kookaburra, were out searching for the missing aviators, Kingsford-Smith and Ulm. The Kookaburra came down with engine trouble in the Tanami Desert and Anderson and Hitchcock perished of thirst. The RAAF had mounted an expensive search, sending out five planes and eventually finding the Kookaburra and the two deceased airmen. Then in 1930 pilot Pittendrigh and his off-sider Hamre were flying out to bring relief to Lasseter when they came down, lost and out of fuel, east of Haast Bluff. Several RAAF planes did many flights before these men were found, luckily alive. December 1932 saw Paddy Whelan marooned on his clay pan. RAAF planes were again called in to search and to drop supplies to him by parachute. Questions were now being asked in parliament and in newspapers about the huge costs of such searches. Something had to be done.
What the authorities did was to perform a hatchet job on the Lasseter tale of a rich gold reef in Central Australia. The releasing to the press in August 1936 of Geologist Ellis’s report on the Cutlack-Hummerston affair was the first step. But it didn’t end there.
Ellis made a second report, quite possibly at the suggestion of the Mines Minister. However, Ellis would not have needed to be leaned on, for he was probably quite annoyed at having had his time wasted by Cutlack and Hummerston. Clearly, they had simply trotted an official geologist around the bush for two months or more to urge on city investors. In mid-1937 there was released the official 1936 Western Australian Geological Surveys Report. That part of it published in the press consisted very largely of a personal attack on Lasseter and his veracity, followed by a negative geological opinion of what Ellis called “a very great area of what has become to be known as ‘Lasseter’s country.’” By defining the area in this way, Ellis avoided telling an untruth, but gave the impression that he was writing about the area where Lasseter travelled in search of his reef. A glance at Map 2 in my Map Gallery will show how false that impression is.
Ellis’ criticisms of Lasseter, and his arguments against the likelihood of Lasseter having found a rich gold reef decades before, will be dealt with in a moment. But Ellis’ analysis of the geology of the area is worth studying. Here is how he defined his “very great area” of Lasseter’s country:
… all that portion of Central Australia situated westwards of the overland telegraph line and lying between two approximately east and west lines located as follows:-
The northern boundary line can be said to start immediately south of Heavitree Gap, two miles south of the town of Alice Springs, and extends westwards along the southern flank of the MacDonnell Ranges to just south of Mt. Tate, then westwards to just north of Mt. Winter, then slightly south of west to the south of Mt. Rennie, and then in a general westerly direction for at least 50 miles [80 kilometres] into Western Australia.
The southern limit of this zone is marked by a line drawn through Mt. Daniel near the railway line, about halfway between Crown Point and Charlotte Waters, west-by-north to Goyder’s Springs, then west-north-west to the south-eastern end of Lake Amadeus, then in a general westerly direction north of Mt. Currie, passing across the Western Australian border between the Docker Gap and Livingstone Pass immediately north of the Petermann Ranges, and continuing for at least 50 miles into Western Australia along the northern flank of the Rawlinson Ranges.1
This is the area enclosed in red in Map 2.
Ellis went on:
This area is what is termed by Dr. Chewings, the Amadeus Sunkland, and is occupied mainly by beds of Ordovician age and their recent weathering products. This very large area of sandstone and quartzite belongs to a series of rocks of sedimentary origin laid down millions of years after the period of gold introduction into the older rocks on which they rest. The basement rocks, the only possible gold bearers, are buried thousands of feet deep over the major portion of this sunkland.
Outside of this area, particularly to the north and west, the older possible gold bearing rocks are covered with thick deposits of almost horizontal sediments of yet another age, and only very infrequently are the older rocks exposed to view as the result of the removal of the cover of rocks by weathering processes.2
Of the area to the south, i.e., the Musgrave, Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges, Ellis admitted that the country could possibly be gold bearing, but only traces of gold had ever been found there, he said, so it “did not constitute a probable metalliferous province.” The final paragraph published in the newspaper reveals the real concern of officialdom:
It cannot be too strongly urged that “Lasseter’s Reef” is likely to be held out as a bait to mining investors for many years to come, and it is necessary to urge just as strongly the necessity for extreme caution when contemplating any investment in a mining venture, the basis of which is a fabulously rich gold reef in Central Australia, which more than likely, the prospective investor will be informed is probably “Lasseter’s Reef.”3
The authorities wanted no more Morley Cutlacks, no more lost prospectors, and no more expensive searches. For a long time afterwards Ellis’s opinions were touted as “the most slashing exposure ever made by a State civil servant.”4 Lasseter’s reputation was in shreds.
The second report, though, was most unfair to Lasseter. Unfortunately, Ellis could get away with implying the area enclosed in red on Map 2 is “Lasseter’s country” because the press and the public at that time largely accepted Stan Hummerston’s story that he had dug up a map drawn by Lasseter. That supposed map of Lasseter located the reef to the north of Robert Range, at 24⁰24’ south and 128⁰10’ east. So in 1936-37 that spot was widely supposed to be where Lasseter declared his reef was located. In truth, that map was nothing to do with Lasseter, but merely a deception by Hummerston.
Ellis also raised the following six major points against Lasseter, criticisms which had been raised before by Fred Blakeley and others. Careful consideration shows that only one of the six has any validity at all.
- Many old residents of Central Australia were said to have questioned Lasseter regarding names and places in Alice Springs and places west at the time of his first visit there decades before. Lasseter could not remember many such details, so it was widely believed he had never been to the region before.
I myself was in Alice Springs in 1961. Like Lasseter, I was there only a day or two, picking up provisions and moving on. All these years later, I cannot remember the layout of the town, details of any building there, or the names of any persons I dealt with in town. Central Australia in Lasseter’s day was sparsely populated, Alice Springs was much smaller, and those old residents knew everybody ̶ because that was their whole world, the world they knew well. But Lasseter was passing through, and it would be surprising if he could remember many such details.
I invite you to try a simple experiment: think back thirty years to a place you visited just briefly for a day or two, just passing through, and where you never kept in touch later with the people you met there. You will be startled at how little you remember of names and places, and will quickly realize how invalid this criticism of Lasseter is.
Although the newspaper account of Ellis’s report does not mention it, another element criticised by the old-timers who quizzed Lasseter was his story of having done his first trip into the desert on a horse, not a camel. The horse died of thirst. Couldn’t have happened, said the old locals. But Jimmy Tregurtha did it in 1896 taking horses. True, he went in from south of Oodnadatta, not from Alice Springs. But he went right through Lasseter’s country and reached as far as Elder Creek before he had to shoot his last horse rather than let it perish miserably of thirst.5
- Ellis quotes a novel, Blood Tracks of the Bush by Simpson Newland. It was first published by Gay & Bird, London, in 1900, and is a story of a rich gold discovery in Central Australia. Ellis says it was likely to have been “the germ of the hallucination responsible for Lasseter’s claim.” “It is very probable that Lasseter had read this book,” Ellis wrote.
Others have raised this point, but they disagree on the book involved. Mrs Hilda Heinrich, the widow of the Hermannsburg school master, Hermann Heinrich, thought Lasseter’s claims grew out of his reading of Golden Buckles by Conrad Sayce, published by Alexander McCubbin, Melbourne, 1920.6
Another suggested book was The Mine with the Iron Door by famous U.S. author Harold Bell Wright, published by D. Appleton & Co, New York, 1923. No matter that this was a story about a mine in America. At one time Lasseter had changed his name from Lewis Hubert Lasseter to Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter. The similarity to the American author’s name made this book a very popular candidate.
A fourth book nominated was The Golden Lake: Or, the Marvellous History of a Journey Through the Great Lone Land of Australia by William Carlton Dawe, published by Trischler, London, 1890. One of the illustrations in this book, it was suggested, was the inspiration for the three hills Lasseter called the “Three Sisters.”
If you search, you will find many other books with similar themes, for the simple reason that in the days of the gold rushes popular literature abounded in such stories. Truly, it is drawing a long bow to suggest that any particular one of these many books triggered Lasseter’s imagination to simply invent the story of his reef.
- Ellis criticised Lasseter’s account of his attempts to fix the position of the reef with a surveyor named Harding around 1900. Lasseter had said they used astronomical methods, but when they returned to Carnarvon in Western Australia they found their watches were out by about one and a quarter hours, so their reef position could be out by 100 miles (161 kilometres) or so. Ellis seized on this, saying: “An error of one and a quarter hours in time would mean not an error of 100 miles in longitude, but about 1,100 miles, hence this story cannot be given any weight as a reason for the elusive nature of the locality of this lost gold reef.”
It was aviator Charles Ulm who first raised this objection, when Lasseter was first telling his story to the people who set up CAGE. Ulm said if the time was out by that much then Lasseter’s reef must be located in the Indian Ocean.
Lasseter completely demolished Ulm’s argument by saying:
“If you take it that way, yes … But it is practically certain that our watches were not so much out when the bearings were taken. Also, as it would be impossible to say how far our watches were out at the time we made the calculations, the bearings are utterly useless. I am going to rely on the landmarks alone.”7
- Ellis wrote: “Another very strange aspect of the case is the fact that a period of some 30 years was allowed to lapse by Lasseter before he made any attempt to exploit his alleged find. This, of course, when viewed in the light of what genuine gold seekers will do and suffer in pursuit of gold is sufficient evidence in itself to stamp the find as mythical.”
In 1930 in Sydney, Lasseter explained the attempts he had made over the years and the reasons for this long delay.8
But the case of Sam Hazlett provides a complete refutation of Ellis’s argument. Sam’s early journey into Lasseter’s country in 1904 had excited his interest in the border ranges district as a promising goldfield. After his spearing, he still travelled and prospected, but not in that harsh country. He said he would go back if ever he felt well enough. In spite of his “gold fever,” it was twenty-five years later, in 1929, that he finally returned, making nonsense of Ellis’s later assertion about genuine gold seekers.
- Ellis stated that to his mind, one of the strongest arguments against the probable existence of a long quartz reef studded with gold in this part of Australia was the fact (as he called it) that no natives had ever produced any gold from there to show to white men.
With all due respect to Ellis as Government Geologist, this statement is simply untrue. There are many accounts of Aborigines showing rich specimens to prospectors. True, some of these accounts must be regarded as suspicious, such as the story of Toole and Krim Sattah. Their tale splashed like a meteor across the mining pages of newspapers, but then vanished into nothingness.
However, one of the reasons the AWU backed Lasseter with the CAGE expedition was that their Mining Secretary, an old gold miner named John Jenkins, had himself seen such specimens brought in by Aborigines from the border region when he was at Kanowna in Western Australia. Jenkins was one of the directors of CAGE.9
Another account came from engineer and mining investor, Theo Leonard, a friend of Richard Lugg. His account is given above in Chapter 10. The assertion of Ellis cannot stand against the very believable statements of responsible people such as these two mining men.
- At last we come to a criticism of Lasseter’s story that has some merit. Ellis wrote: “The whole of the area where this alleged reef exists is accessible to camel transport, given the right time of the year and a normal season. It can be confidently asserted that there is hardly a square mile of this part of Australia that has not been seen by white men since the year 1900.”
Explorer Michael Terry had raised this objection to Lasseter’s story in 1932. Terry said he had secured the details of eighty prospecting parties who had gone through that country since it was first discovered by Giles, Gosse and Forrest in the early 1870s. No rich finds had been authenticated. The area was burdened with tales of lost reefs and caves of gold. It was now getting to a state where prospecting parties were only financed if they sought lost finds. Orthodox parties wishing to try new country found it difficult to secure financial assistance, Terry complained.10
Many, many prospecting expeditions have searched for Lasseter’s reef since 1930. There was no more dedicated seeker than Sam Hazlett. Ellis does seem to have a valid point against Lasseter here. But if you go out there and see the vastness of that area, your mind will question if every square mile has been thoroughly inspected. Probably that is why the Lasseter legend has never died, and perhaps never will.
It is not my intention to paint Lasseter as a lily-white purveyor of the truth. We have seen how he lied about his past. But he did not deserve to have his name blackened in this way by an official of the Western Australian Government. Ellis’s false criticisms have no place in a geological report.
The aim of the authorities in 1936-37 is clear. For the reasons given at the beginning of this chapter, they wanted to kill off for all time the notion of a fabulously rich gold reef in the Central Australian Deserts; so, like Fred Blakeley, they deliberately set out to destroy Lasseter’s reputation.
- South Western Advertiser, Perth, June 4, 1937, p. 3
- South Western Advertiser, Perth, June 11, 1937, p. 3
- The Daily News, Perth, August 3, 1948, p. 2
- Tregurtha’s diary of the trip and a map of his route were published in the Western Mail, Perth, February 3, 1938, pp. 8 and 10
- The Canberra Times, October 27, 1983, p. 3
- Coote, Errol, Hell’s Airport, 2nd edition, Peterman Press, Sydney, 1934, p. 37
- Coote, Errol, op. cit. pp. 28-29
- Coote, Errol, op. cit., pp. 31 and 42
- The West Australian, Perth, December 31, 1932, p. 9
Chapter 21 – Camels in Desert and City
Meanwhile in February 1936 Sam and Chub had again left Laverton with a small party and nineteen camels. This time they travelled and prospected in the ranges east of Warburton and in the Great Victoria Desert to the south. When they returned to Laverton in October 1936 they reported the country dry and waterless, with drought conditions everywhere in the interior. Just occasionally, where local showers of rain had fallen, there were small green patches of country, and at those places great herds of kangaroos had congregated. Sam reported that more than two hundred Aborigines in the ranges were waiting for the first rains when they intended to come down to the goldfields, for they had heard from other natives that plenty of food was to be had there. As usual, Sam was silent about his prospecting luck.1
Then, on December 21, 1936, Sam set out on a most unusual trip. Alone, with just two camels, he travelled from Laverton to Mulline, and thence to Lake Barlee where gold finds had recently been reported. After a little prospecting there, he headed west, came southward down the rabbit-proof fence, then headed for Perth. For the most part he found reasonable feed for his camels, but had to purchase feed when passing through poison bush country. Once he reached more settled country, farmers from many miles around gathered at his camping spots to see the unusual sight of a camel “train,” small though it was. Children begged him for rides. As he had brought his two most docile riding camels, Bonny and Tommy, he granted their wishes, and discovered there was a huge demand for camel rides in areas where camels were rarely seen. On Sunday, January 10, 1937, he was camped at Baker’s Hill, with children again clamouring for rides. The following night he camped out east of Midland, where his 16 year old son Jim joined him. Before daylight they were astir and on the road again. They reached Midland as the sun was rising. They rode through back streets where possible, and only once did a horse become frightened. (Horses which have never seen camels before often go berserk at first sight of one!) At a steady clip the two rode on through Guildford and Bassendean to Bayswater while early morning strollers stared in amazement. Bonny and Tommy, after a journey of almost 1,000 kilometres, were soon tethered in Sam’s special paddock. It was January 12, 1937, and Sam was home for a holiday.2
One of the first things city reporters asked him about was Lasseter’s reef, for in January 1937 Morley Cutlack was heading out into Central Australia from his new base in Brisbane, and still claiming that his search was based on Lasseter’s map.3 Considering the enormous amount of time Sam had spent searching in Lasseter’s country, his answer probably surprised the press. Sam declared Lasseter’s reef a myth.
Firstly, he said, the area where Lasseter’s reef was said to be was not auriferous. In that particular section of the country he had prospected on numerous occasions. Bearing in mind that for decades Sam had regarded the border ranges area as a very promising region for gold, it is clear that with this new statement he was referring to the area pointed to by Hummerston and Cutlack and their fake “Lasseter map.”
Secondly, Sam said he knew the heart of Australia thoroughly, excepting the Rudall Ranges, and he and others had criss-crossed the country so many times, and for so many years, that if the reef existed it surely would have been rediscovered. At last, probably against his own will and battling the grip of his gold fever, Sam had come to agree with Michael Terry and others who had been saying for years that Lasseter’s reef was a myth.
Sam’s opinion was published in newspapers around Australia, and, as often happens with newspapers, the reference to Rudall Ranges was mangled by the press. An Adelaide paper made it “Rudolf Ranges.”4 By the time the story reached North Queensland it had become the “Randolph Ranges.”5 Officially, there are no Rudolf or Randolph Ranges in Western or Central Australia, neither is there a Rudall Range. There is a Rudall Creek near Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory, but Sam was referring to the mountainous region to the south-east of Marble Bar. There is a Mount Rudall there, and a mountainous area bearing the headwaters of the Rudall River in what was later to become the Rudall River National Park. This is the region to which Sam was attracted in the late ’thirties and early ’forties, the final years of his wanderings.
In Perth, the freedom loving Sam quickly came up against bureaucratic restrictions. The Claremont Speedway wanted him to appear with his camels at their track. From his Bayswater home direct to the Speedway via the city would have been little more than thirteen kilometres, but the authorities insisted he skirt the city and go by back roads, forcing him to make a thirty-two kilometre journey. As well, he was informed camels were not allowed on the streets after 8 a.m. On January 16, 1937, Sam appeared at the track, circling the arena with Bonny and Tommy to a great ovation from the crowd. Then two of the motor cycle riders named Lewis and Clark mounted Bonny and Tommy for an amusing and unique camel race. Lewis won “by a neck,” and the race time was declared a “track record” for camel racing!
Sam wished to trial camel rides on Perth beaches to see if this was a viable business. His first problem was finding an insurance company that would cover his patrons, for the bemused insurance people had never been asked before for a policy to cover camel riders. Restrictions on street movements of his camels forced him to use a railway “elephant truck” to transport Tommy by rail to South Fremantle. On February 20, 1937, explorer and prospector Sam made his debut as a showman and rides cameleer at a railway workshops picnic on South Beach.
Taking camels to the metropolis was not such a good idea, Sam discovered. Only a few days later the tethered Bonny suffered a fall, and died within two hours. Although initially he declared he would replace her with another camel brought down from Laverton, Sam soon gave up on the city as camel habitat. Within weeks he decamped to his beloved desert regions. In December 1937 his daughter Irene (“Billie”) married Tom Maddaford in Perth. She was given away by family friend, Mr W. Cosson. Sam was nowhere to be seen ̶ he was prospecting in the Rawlinson Range.
- The West Australian, Perth, November 5, 1936, p. 11
- The Daily News, Perth, January 12, 1937, p. 1
- The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, January 4, 1937, p. 11
- News, Adelaide, January 13, 1937, p. 7
- Townsville Daily Bulletin, Queensland, January 19, 1937, p. 3
Chapter 22 – Back to the Desert
… the most that one can get out in that country is a violent thirst.1
The Rawlinson Range had a long and bloody history for prospectors. A man named Charles Norton, showing rich gold specimens, claimed to have made a strike there in the 1890s. A syndicate backed an expedition led by Henry Hill to go out to it in 1899-1900, but disaster followed. Charlie Norton could not rediscover the location of his reef and was fatally speared by Aborigines. The expedition’s Afghan cameleer tried to murder another man but was himself shot dead. Of seventeen camels, only eight returned to civilization, most of the others having been speared by Rawlinson tribesmen. The surviving expedition members were lucky to escape perishing by thirst, for a terrible drought gripped the land. The leader’s diary of the trip has only recently been published.2
In December 1930 Harry Lasseter claimed to have travelled alone along the Rawlinson Range to Lake Christopher, then directly to his reef. We know he did reach Lake Christopher because Michael Terry in 1932 found nearby traces of his camp and a tree marked by him: “LASSETER 2.12.30”. This strongly suggests that Lasseter was a far better bushman than many of his critics.3
But if Sam Hazlett in 1937 really believed that Lasseter’s reef was a myth, what was he doing in the Rawlinson Range in December of that year? It could be that he was just passing through to somewhere else. Possibly he was just after dingo scalps. It could be that he had not completely given up on the possibility of gold being there. Or perhaps he was seeking other minerals.
Sam was interested in more than just gold when prospecting. He had been at Lightning Ridge in New South Wales before the rush set in for the rare black opal, and had discovered several opal formations in Western Australia. Once a parcel of opaline brought in by him was presented to the Perth Museum. He believed that payable opal was likely to be found in Western Australia. In addition to opal, Sam had found agate, topaz, and many other semi-precious stones in Western Australia, but this was before the days of the rock-hounds and their gemstone boom. He thought these stones were not of good enough quality to command payable prices on the world market. Nevertheless, he marked their locations on his map for future close examination ̶ if ever he had the time.4
When I first heard of Sam’s personal map I searched high and low for it, but it seems to be nowhere in the family papers. No one I have spoken to admits to having it, anyway. After his death it probably went to either Chub or Jim, and as neither of them had children, Sam’s map now seems permanently lost.
But information from Chub indicates that Sam at some time located what was believed to be wolfram and scheelite (an ore of wolfram) in the Rawlinson Range area.5 A family story related to me by Geoff Wells tells that Sam had a wolfram lease somewhere, but during World War 2 it was confiscated by the government for the war effort. Although I have seen no documentation on this, Geoff’s story seems believable, because the Federal Government did make such confiscations during World War 2. Famously, the thrice-married Deborah Drake-Brockman (aka Lady Hackett, aka Lady Moulden, aka Dr Buller-Murphy), head of Tantalite Ltd, had her tantalum and wolfram mines taken over by the Australian Government for the duration of the war. In 1949 she brought action against the Commonwealth for millions in compensation for its use of her mines. The government settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. As Sam died before the war ended, he never received his lease back, neither did he receive any compensation, as far as is known. But then again, if the story is true, he may have disposed of his lease to Tantalite or another company before the confiscations began. We have no details.6
But we know Sam was in the Rawlinsons around Christmas time in 1937 because of information he gave to the police. After Sam’s brief stint as a beach novelty cameleer, he and Chub went back to the desert, but in separate directions. Chub, with a mate named Malcolm Gooch (the newspapers called him Mat, but Chub knew him as Malcolm) went to the Wiluna district, and later headed across to Wauchope in the Northern Territory. Sam took his younger son, Jim, to Laverton and thence to the border ranges. In the Rawlinson Range around Christmas 1937 Sam was speaking with an Aboriginal woman who began to tell him of straying camels which had come into the Warburton Mission station when she was there shortly before. Before Sam could get any more details, her man came up and took her away. Sam did not see her again, but he reported this to the Laverton police when next in town.7
In early 1938 the story had grown. Chub had not been heard of by the family for twelve months. Native rumours spread that two white men had been speared to death in a lonely gully near the Warburton Range. Suggestions were that they were perhaps Chub Hazlett and Malcolm Gooch. Sam was worried. About Easter 1938, Sam and Jim set out from Laverton for the Warburton district. Their aim was to find the straying camels and try to identify them, and to discover the truth about the spearing rumours.
Newspapers around Australia carried the story of Chub’s alleged spearing. As a consequence, telegrams arrived at Sam’s home in Perth from people who had recently seen Chub and Malcolm in the Wauchope and Tennant Creek area, setting at rest the minds of Nina and the girls. But out in the wilds, Sam and Jim did not know this. Aboriginal smoke signals had preceded them to the border region:
“Goonji coming alonga ranges look for son fella.”
Then, after Nina had received the telegrams, there came more smoke talk:
“Tell Goonji white men say son and other man alive. Him sit down till smoke tell him if true.”
“Goonji him big fella son bin come gone him all right.”
But Sam was always wary of believing information coming from Aborigines. He and Jim found the camels in the ranges. They were Chub’s. Sam was now really alarmed.
Coming into the Warburton Mission station, Sam sent a message by pedal radio requesting a police party to come out and search for Chub and his mate. The police were able to reassure him that Chub and Malcolm were alive and well in the Northern Territory and that the camels had simply escaped from their hobbles at Tennant Creek and made their way back to the Warburton area where they had been bred. This is an astonishing fact about camels: they will sometimes escape and travel hundreds of miles to return to their original home.8
About this time, while he was camped at a well approximately six and a half kilometres from the Warburton Mission, Sam had an alarming experience with a horse he had with him. Local Aborigines had covered the water supply to prevent wild animals accessing it. Nearby they left a small amount of water which had been poisoned by soaking “goong-goong” bush in it. Before Sam realized this, his horse had drunk of the poisoned water. Being a large animal, it did not die, but Sam was forced to move camp to another well some miles away.9
Once he had received the radio reply to his call for help and knew that Chub was safely accounted for, Sam decided to utilize his remaining stores on another prospecting trip. He and Jim plunged deeply into the Gibson Desert, ostensibly on another search for the Leichhardt relics. Whilst there, his camels gave another exhibition of their curious talents. A thirsty camel, downwind from water, can smell it from many miles away. Following his camels, Sam entered a limestone cave with a narrow opening through a blowhole. He followed the animals along a passage to an underground pool of water stretching as far as he could see in the semi-darkness. The water was bitter, but drinkable, and Sam believed it was a permanent supply. This meant that he would be able to probe farther into the Gibson Desert than was previously thought possible. But food supplies were soon low and on their return trip Sam and Jim used up the last of their flour on the morning of the day they reached White Cliffs Station.10
Meanwhile, Sam was in trouble with the Protector of Aborigines, Mr A.O. Neville, who had met up with him on the track near Burtville before Chub was reported speared. Neville reprimanded him:
I questioned Mr. Hazlett, sen., about himself and his sons visiting the native reserve in the vicinity of the Warburton Range without a permit … He told me that his elder son, Sam, had gone north towards Wiluna and did not intend to return to the area, and that he (Hazlett, sen.) did not intend to go to the range again, as it was not worth while, scalps being too scarce. I issued a warning to Mr. Hazlett. No one has the right to enter a native reserve of any size without a permit, and a person given such permission may be required to enter into a bond to observe certain conditions.11
Neville himself took a photo which records this meeting, and it will be found in my Picture Gallery.
This reprimand would have infuriated Sam, who had made the road, dug the wells, and opened up the area. The bureaucratic restraints which had irked him in the city were now pursuing him into the bush. As a result, he refused to divulge the location of the underground pool he had discovered in the Gibson Desert; for, he said, previous permanent waters he had reported had been created a native reserve, and after that white men had been forbidden to traverse those areas.
Many newspaper reports suggest that the finding of this underground water was made in the next expedition of 1938-39. But as the discovery was reported in the Kalgoorlie Miner of August 17, 1938, it is clear this water was found on this short trip when Sam’s son Jim had his first taste of the Gibson Desert.
- Smith, H., writing of the Rawlinson Range district in a letter in the Kalgoorlie Miner, January 15, 1932, p. 1
- Hill, Henry W., Desert, Drought, and Death, Hesperian Press, Victoria Park WA, 2009
- Western Mail, Perth, August 12, 1937, p. 8
- South Western Advertiser, Perth, February 14, 1936, p. 5
- Western Australian exploration plans: Cadastral Map XII/800 (S. Hazlett’s camel trip). For more details of this map see Maps 5A and 5B in my Map Gallery.
- Online reference to Brisbane Sunday Truth, April 13, 1969
- Kalgoorlie Miner, April 16, 1938, p. 1
- Kalgoorlie Miner, June 3, 1938, p. 2
- Western Argus, June 7, 1938, p. 4
- Kalgoorlie Miner, August 17, 1938, p. 7
- The West Australian, Perth, May 31, 1938, p. 16
Chapter 23 – Sam’s Last Journeys
By now Dr Laver had died, so no funding was available from him for Sam’s travels. But Sam still maintained he was off on another expedition to search for the Leichhardt relics. It would seem, then, that the relics story was not simply a ploy to extract funding from Dr Laver. Sam did genuinely believe there could be something in this Aboriginal story. In August 1938 others were searching in the Simpson Desert near the South Australia-Northern Territory border where a station owner had reported a find of eight skeletons thought to be the remains of Leichhardt’s party.
However, Sam was about to journey to what he called the Musgrave Ranges ̶ not the Musgrave Ranges in South Australia near the Northern Territory border, but an area near Bargo in Western Australia between Gregory Lake and the Northern Territory border. Though called the Musgrave Ranges then, nowadays the ranges in this region are called the Kearney and Lewis Ranges.
A man named Charles Harding together with an Aborigine had found, north of there, a brass plate attached to a charred gunstock stamped: “LUDWIG.LEICHHARDT.1848”. To this day, this brass plate is regarded as “the only known authentic relic of Leichhardt’s 1848 expedition.”1 As well, Aboriginal stories which came to Sam indicated that the relics he had been seeking were not far from Gregory Lake (aka Gregory Salt Sea) and the Musgrave Ranges.
Setting out about August 1938, Sam and Jim were away for about six months. According to a 1939 newspaper, they travelled “over Hammersleys and Wellesleys and up to the Weinnkee [sic] Hill, and on the return called at Wongawol Station to see Mr. Tommy Mellon, its manager and founder.”2 It is never certain that the names of ranges then correspond with the names of today. It seems likely that the reference is to Winnecke Rock just east of Lake Disappointment, for their return was across the Gibson Desert.
On this journey, Sam said the natives were “very cheeky.” They fatally speared one camel, and were surprised and prevented at night from stealing three others. The party also reported the discovery of some uncharted mountain ranges. He had not found the Leichhardt relics, but expressed confidence that he would locate them soon. As usual, Sam was silent concerning any auriferous country encountered. He made it clear that was information to be reported only to the mining men who financed his expeditions.3
Virtually banned from entering Lasseter’s country, Sam’s expeditions were now all to the north-west. In 1939-40 he undertook a journey to the “Gregory hills,” a journey about which little was published, and little is known now. Quite likely the hills are what are known today as the Gregory Range in the region he called the Rudall Ranges. The only reference to this trip I have seen is in a small item which appeared in a couple of newspapers about a charity camel race in Laverton held after they had returned. They were Sam’s camels, and Jim Hazlett was one of the riders in the race.4
Then in November 1940, Sam and Jim, accompanied by well-known prospector Jim Escreet, set out from Laverton on what was plainly announced as a gold-seeking expedition. Escreet had been involved with several important gold finds such as The Granites and Cox’s Find. In May 1935 Jim Escreet with A.E. and G.W. Cox had pegged an area some sixty-five kilometres to the north of Laverton and then sold their leases to Western Mining Corporation the following month for £25,000, a fortune in those days.
With six pack camels and three riding camels, Sam and the two Jims made no secret of the fact that gold alone was the only prize they sought. Leichhardt’s relics were not mentioned. This trip took them past the Canning Stock Route to Wongawol, Lake Disappointment, and the Rudall district, then across to Balfour Downs. They returned down the rabbit-proof fence and the Canning Stock Route, reaching Wiluna at the end of March 1941. They let it be known they hadn’t had much luck, though they had seen many reefs which they thought should be gold-bearing. At one point Sam thought he had found tin, but it turned out to be some other mineral.
On this trip they had taken a radio set thus having access to news and music. But also it was arranged that fortnightly they would receive a message broadcast by Nina from Perth.
This was a hellish trip. At one stage in sand hills and spinifex no water was available for six days. The searing heat of the ground actually lifted the pads from the feet of the camels, and it was necessary to shoot the best riding camel to put it out of its misery. They told of hobbling the camels and walking for one and a half days along a watercourse before finding a trace of moisture. At another time the camels had to be tethered and hand fed when passing through poison-bush country. At Wiluna they reprovisioned then left for Lake Darlot where they intended to prospect new country recently opened at a strike called Freeman’s Find.5
In August 1941 Sam found himself camped forty-eight kilometres out of Laverton, waiting for news of his son Jim. Jim was now twenty-one and had to go for a military medical. This was war-time and the army wanted men, and soon decided they wanted Jim in camp as a universal trainee. This was a setback for Sam’s exploring plans as he always liked to have one of his sons with him. Chub was by this time settled into a new life in the Halls Creek area, and now the army had Jim.6
Then about Christmas time in 1941, while riding a camel at a waterhole out from Laverton, Sam had a serious accident. The camel lost its footing, slipping in mud. Sam was thrown heavily to the ground and was knocked unconscious. The camel wandered some distance away and was seen by a party of natives who recognized it as Goonji’s camel. They tracked it back to the scene of the accident and found Sam struggling towards his camp. Badly concussed, he could not remember what happened after he fell from the camel. With Jim away in the army, Sam was forced to return to Perth to recover.7
Nina and the family had been pestering him for some time to retire, and to set down the story of his adventurous life in book form. Now aged seventy, Sam while recuperating began to write the story of his most recent trip. He told his school teacher daughter, Peggy, that one day he would travel to Mudgee in New South Wales and help her write his life story, but not yet. He had no intention of retiring, and still spoke of another trip to the Rudall country as soon as he was well enough.
But Sam’s body had had enough. He took a turn for the worse. Alarmed, the family sent out radio messages trying to find Chub and tell him of his father’s serious illness. Sam was still talking of another desert trip and dreaming of finding his “big stuff” when he died on March 23, 1942. His death certificate gave the cause of death as cerebral haemorrhage four weeks previously, asthenia, and cardiac failure. Sam was buried the next day in the Presbyterian area of Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery (section 1A, site 0252).
The newspapers announcing his death reported he “probably knew more about the outback than any other man.”8 His son Jim reckoned Sam had done nineteen expeditions into Central Australia, more than any other explorer. His memorials on maps include Lake Hazlett, the Hazlett Range (also known as the Shay Cart Range with the southern end known as the Hazlett Cliffs) situated some sixty or seventy kilometres east-south-east of Laverton, and the Hazlett Rock or Rocks near Mount Hinckley in the border ranges.
- Lewis, Darrell, Where is Dr Leichhardt?, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Victoria, 2013, p. 180
- News, Adelaide, February 18, 1939
- The West Australian, Perth, February 20, 1939, p. 16
- The West Australian, Perth, April 15, 1940, p. 11
- The West Australian, Perth, April 5, 1941, p. 5
- The Daily News, Perth, August 9, 1941, p. 7
- The Daily News, Perth, February 7, 1942, p. 8
- The Daily News, Perth, March 24, 1942, p. 4
Chapter 24 – Tales from the Desert
‘He used to tell me lies, and I’d tell him lies,’ he said in affectionate memory of tales told about the camp-fire … ‘He was a man-and-a-half…’ 1
In 1940 Morley Cutlack was back in Central Australia, searching yet again for Lasseter’s reef, or his version of it, somewhere near Lake Amadeus. With him went the well-known writer, Frank Clune.
Clune spent several days at Ayers Rock in the company of an Aboriginal man known as Mick, real name Koorin-Jaminny, who said he was one of the tribe who helped Lasseter after the prospector had lost his camels, the tribe who had buried the prospector in a shallow grave after his death. Koorin-Jaminny demonstrated to Clune the depth of that grave by measuring up to his kneecap from the ground. Bob Buck himself told Clune, “I dug up his body, souvenired his false teeth and diaries, and reburied him.”2
Of great interest is Koorin-Jaminny’s statement that Lasseter was found by the tribe south of Lake Amadeus after his camels had bolted.3
In the early 1980s, writer Billy Marshall-Stoneking interviewed, at Papunya and thereabouts, Aboriginal men from the desert tribes who had direct dealings with Lasseter himself and with events subsequent to his death. Marshall-Stoneking’s retelling of the Lasseter story with the addition of these Aboriginal tales in his 1985 book, Lasseter – the Making of a Legend (edited and republished in 1989 as Lasseter in Quest of Gold) created new interest in the Lasseter saga.
Marshall-Stoneking tells us that according to Leslie Tjapanangka, who would have been about ten years old in 1930, Lasseter and his camels had come from the Rawlinson Range, travelling east, and the camels had escaped from the prospector at the western side of Shaw Creek.4
Koorin-Jaminny’s story and Leslie Tjapanangka’s story cannot both be true. If Clune was writing in the 1870s, we could perhaps reconcile the two stories, for at that time Lake Amadeus was thought to stretch right across into Western Australia and include what we now know as Lake Neale and Lake Hopkins. But even at that time “south of Lake Amadeus” would be an unlikely description for a specific spot west of Shaw Creek. However, Clune was writing in the 1940s and knew Lake Amadeus as we know it today. There is clearly something wrong in these Aboriginal stories.
Billy Marshall-Stoneking tells us he spent much time with Nosepeg Tjupurrula, the man credited with finding the grave of Lasseter for the American film maker, Lowell Thomas, in 1957. The American promptly dug up Lasseter’s skeleton. According to Marshall-Stoneking:
Nosepeg would grab various parts of his body to show what had been found. ‘This one here,’ he’d say, grabbing his leg; ‘this one here,’ grabbing his head; ‘and here and here,’ grabbing his other arm and hand; ‘and this one here, all the way,’ he’d say, and grab hold of his teeth. But then I remembered that Lasseter didn’t have teeth. Bob Buck had, in fact, brought back a set of dentures which the police accepted as proof of the fact that he had found Lasseter.
’Wait a minute,’ I said to Nosepeg, ‘are you sure Lasseter had teeth?’
Nosepeg nodded: ‘Yes, inside, all the way.’ And then he pushed his index finger up between his gums and his teeth in several places as if demonstrating how teeth were fastened to the head. ‘Inside, inside, all the way!’
’But Lasseter had false teeth,’ I replied. ‘Are you sure this body didn’t have false teeth?’
’Not false teeth!’ Nosepeg said, becoming slightly impatient with me. ‘Not parntu. True one! Inside!’
Nosepeg was adamant about the teeth, but if there were teeth then it was not possible that the body that was found was Lasseter’s.
[A footnote explains:] ’parntu’ ̶ literally ‘salt’, but used figuratively to connote anything that appears to be something it is not (i.e. a falsehood).5
Nosepeg’s impatient insistence that the skull had a full set of real teeth makes this tale seem very believable, and Marshall-Stoneking was plainly convinced of the tribal elder’s sincerity.
However it is easily demonstrated that Nosepeg’s story is untrue. Lowell Thomas’s film of the exhumation still exists, and it shows the American holding up the skull to the camera. The skull clearly has no upper teeth and only two teeth in the lower jaw. The entire film can be viewed amongst the extra “Special Features” on the 2014 DVD of Luke Walker’s 2012 documentary, Lasseter’s Bones.
Again, Marshall-Stoneking tells of several tribal elders whom he knew during his time at Papunya, some of whom would disappear for two or three weeks at a time:
… when I enquired as to their whereabouts, the common reply was ‘They’ve gone to get some more gold – you know, from that Lasseter reef’. This information came not only from older people, but from several boys who were related to these men and whom I knew quite well. If I had been a ‘new chum’ in the community, I could have easily been duped without knowing it, but I had lived in Papunya long enough – and had established good relationships with enough people – to become sensitive to when people were joking or telling a tale. Also, invariably, when these old men returned they came back in brand new Land Rovers. ‘They got that new car from the gold,’ one of my young friends said, matter-of-factly.6
Billy Marshall-Stoneking clearly believed these claims, and regarding the reef tells us, “I am sure that it exists”.7
But what that writer did not realize in the early 1980s was that he was witnessing the beginnings of what came to be known later as the “Motor Car Dreaming.” In the 1970s when the Whitlam Labor Government swept into power, enormous sums of money began to be pumped into Central Australian Aboriginal communities in an attempt to end the “third world” living conditions endured in many indigenous settlements. For years there was no accountability, there was little record keeping, and millions of dollars just “disappeared” with little or no improvement in settlement conditions. The scandal went on for decades, and because of sensitivities surrounding Aboriginal matters, no government of either political camp succeeded in stopping the waste. Whitefellas blamed blackfellas, blackfellas blamed whitefellas, and the problem continued into the 21st century.
In May 2005, Russell Skelton writing in The Age reported:
A local government review of the council’s performance carried out last year documented systemic financial mismanagement at Papunya.
Mismanagement problems identified by the review included:
- 40 vehicles had been written off in the council minutes but could not be found or their existence verified.
[Quoting a spokesman for the NT Local Government Minister, Skelton added:]
The spokesman said the NT Government regarded Papunya as part of a “widespread local governance failure” in remote communities and because of this there would be no inquiry.8
Russell Skelton later authored a book, King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya, which brought the scandal’s history up to date. Predictably, his book received extremely unflattering reviews in Australia’s indigenous media, but to date there has been no serious rebuttal of Skelton’s carefully researched information.9 What there has been is a counter-claim that much Commonwealth funding designed to go to the indigenous communities in the bush has been siphoned off by the Northern Territory Government and spent on other things. When millions of dollars are being handed out, no race, no skin colour, no segment of society, has a monopoly on greed and rorting. The scandal continues to this day.10
Back in the 1980s, Billy Marshall-Stoneking was convinced he was no “new chum” and could not be duped by Aboriginal storytellers. He could have benefited greatly from heeding Sam Hazlett’s advice quoted above in Chapter 14:
… if the person dealing with them does not know their nature he is likely to lead himself into trouble.
The fact is, those old Centralian tribesmen lived in two worlds: the harsh desert landscape from which they wrested a livelihood; and their “Dreaming,” a mindset of concepts used to make sense of their surroundings. This is normal usage of the human mind. In Eastern and Western cultures, belief systems have arisen containing devas, angels, heavens, hells, and other immaterial beings and realms. It is not satisfactory to label such ideas as mere lies. They are real to the people who believe in them. Even in the matter-of-fact world of modern science and technology, scientists have to turn to poetry and mythology to make sense of their new discoveries in modern physics – witness the famous quoting of Hindu scripture by Oppenheimer when he watched the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
To the poetic mind of a desert Aborigine, the sudden availability of vast sums of government money was indeed “Lasseter’s Reef,” the white man’s bonanza of the desert. Just as Morley Cutlack claimed he had found Lasseter’s reef and mined the pockets of city investors, so the desert tribesmen took possession of the idea and mined the pockets of Australian taxpayers to create the “Motor Car Dreaming.”
The researcher of today can no more discover the truth about Lasseter’s reef from Aboriginal tales than he or she can from the stories which came from Lasseter’s white associates after the unfortunate prospector’s death. Like much in the world of prospecting and mining, the legend of Lasseter is a swirling mass of rumour, speculation, fact and falsehood.
Leaving poetry and mythology aside for a moment, is there, in the heat and dust and rocks and sands of Central Australia, a reef of quartz, kilometres long, bearing rich veins of gold? Sam Hazlett spent a huge slice of his life trying to uncover the answer to that question. In the end he announced that Lasseter’s reef was a myth. Yet within twelve months he was back in Lasseter’s country searching for – what? We puzzled over that in Chapter 22. Perhaps a clue as to what Sam was doing lies in an old joke from the gold rush days:
An old prospector died and presented himself at the Pearly Gates seeking entry to Heaven.
“I’m sorry,” said St Peter, “there is no room left. Heaven is full of Australian prospectors.”
“I’ll make room quickly enough,” said the newcomer, and began shouting through the Gates: “Gold! Gold! There’s a new gold strike in Hell!”
In a moment there was a rush out of the Gates and Heaven was left almost empty. The newcomer picked up his swag and turned to follow the rush.
Said St Peter: “Where do you think you are going? You started that rumour yourself!”
“Yeah,” said the old prospector, “but you never know, there may be something in it.”
Sam Hazlett had that endless optimism of the true prospector. He never abandoned the dream of finding his “big stuff.” However, if you ask today whether or not Lasseter’s reef really exists in the physical world, there is no certain answer. To this day there are people who insist, most emphatically, that there is no reef. Others, with equal certainty, believe it is out there somewhere. The truth is that nobody knows. However, one thing is certain – people are still searching and will go on searching for it.
- Bushman Willie Smith, remembering the long-dead bushman Baden Bloomfield. Kimber, R.G., Man from Arltunga, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 1996, p. 145
- Clune, Frank, The Red Heart, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1944, p. 19
- Clune, Frank, op. cit., p. 27
- Marshall-Stoneking, Billy, Lasseter in Search of Gold, Hodder & Stoughton, Sydney, 1989, pp. 167-8
- Marshall-Stoneking, Billy, op. cit., p. 228
- Marshall-Stoneking, Billy, op. cit. p. 214
- Marshall-Stoneking, Billy, op. cit., p. 9
- Skelton, Russell, “Scandal of missing indigenous funds”, The Age, theage.com.au, May 29, 2005, retrieved June 10, 2015
- Skelton, Russell, King Brown Country: The Betrayal of Papunya, Allen & Unwin, Crow’s Nest, Sydney, 2010
- The Weekend Australian, August 8-9, 2015, pp. 1, 6, 20.
Chapter 25 – The Modern Search
In the last decades of the twentieth century the growing popularity of four-wheel-driving brought new interest to the search for Lasseter’s reef. Many adventurous types combined a holiday in the bush with a search, sometimes half-hearted, sometimes more serious. However those years also coincided with the growth of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement, and the areas where seekers desire to prospect are mostly no-go zones for Lasseter enthusiasts today. Permits are required to pass through Lasseter’s country. They require travellers to stay on defined roads and are issued for a limited period. Permits to prospect are a different matter again. Experienced four-wheel-drive enthusiasts advise that a traveller should not be surprised, when driving along a remote route, to come upon a sign saying: “No Admittance – permit or no permit.”
However, we now have an invention which enables anyone with a computer to search for Lasseter’s reef from the comfort of one’s own home. Freely available to all users, Google Earth is a tool capable of far more than most people imagine. You may have used it to navigate roads and streets in your area, to hover over your own house for a bird’s eye view, and to descend to street level and inspect a photographic record of a neighbourhood’s streets filmed by Google’s vehicle-borne cameras. You can do the same in the deserts of Central Australia. No, the Google camera hasn’t been down the roads in such remote places, so the images you obtain will not have the photographic clarity of city streets. These desert images are built from satellite views which are able to gauge the varying elevations of the landscape. Initially, from above you obtain a fine bird’s eye view photograph. You can zoom in to as close as a kilometre or less above the earth’s surface. Individual trees and rough bush tracks are clearly seen. When you come down to Google’s ground-level view the approximate shapes (manufactured by the technology) of any surrounding hills and mountains will appear, and you can view any prominent landmark from any angle. But you need to know the limitations of this technology to understand what you are seeing on the screen. Then YOU can take part in the modern search for Lasseter’s reef.
Firstly, run through Google Earth’s tutorials so you know how to operate the system and navigate the surface of the land. Importantly, note the little figures at the bottom right of the computer screen which give you the date the image you see was photographed, the precise latitude and longitude as well as the elevation above sea level of the position of the cursor on the screen, and the “eye altitude” or zoom level which you can adjust. Generally speaking, you can currently obtain a good image with clear resolution down to about one kilometre above the scene, but this can vary. Sometimes you can zoom in much closer.
Now try this: type “Ayers Rock, Northern Territory” or “Uluru, Northern Territory” into the search box and click on “Search.” Up comes a bird’s eye view of the famous Rock. Place your cursor to the left of the Rock at 25⁰20’51” south and 131⁰01’08” east. The elevation above sea level shows as 520 metres. Adjust your eye altitude to about nine or ten kilometres above the scene. Then move your cursor to the right and watch the latitude, longitude, and elevation figures change rapidly as the cursor moves eastward over the Rock itself. The elevation goes up well into the 800s then falls again as you descend the eastern edge of the mount.
Zoom out until your eye altitude reads about twenty-five kilometres. Use the little rule at the top of the screen to measure about five kilometres south of the Rock. Click and drag the little man, the street view icon, down to that spot. Up will come a remarkably good image of the monolith. Take a similar look from the east, west and north to see different views, not exactly photographic, but quite accurate in shape and proportion. The reason for this is that the Rock lies out in the middle of a fairly flat desert and the various elevations calculated by the system produce a good picture. You will notice, though, that the view of the Rock from certain places to the north is affected by sand dunes.
Next, try the same exercise with Gill Pinnacle in Western Australia. At latitude 24⁰53’27” south and longitude 128⁰46’30” east, this is an isolated mountain, yet close up against a mountain range. A ground-level viewing from five kilometres south shows the peak lost against the mountainous background. You must move in much closer to obtain a shape for this mountain, and the computer shape is noticeably different from the photos and drawings available of this peak. Again, look at it from different directions and from different distances. This shows you what care you must take in interpreting these images.
In rough country where you cannot obtain a good ground-level image, you can sometimes learn a lot by moving the cursor across the landscape and watching the numbers indicating the changing elevation above sea level. But be aware this indicator does not reveal small hillocks about the height of a building or small sinkholes or depressions. It paints with a broader brush.
Early explorers also erred in their interpretation of mountain shapes. Ernest Giles’s illustration of Gill Pinnacle and its mountainous background in his book, Australia Twice Traversed, looks very unlike modern photos of this range. It would seem weeks and months of travelling flat desert country makes the imagination magnify the heights of hills and mountains when these are eventually reached, and Giles’ illustration has very exaggerated heights. (See it in my Picture Gallery.)
Harry Lasseter, when describing his landmarks, said the hills he called the “Three Sisters” looked like women wearing sun-bonnets, as pictured in Dickens’ book, Dombey and Son. An illustration from that book (also in the Picture Gallery) shows what he was talking about.
Now, move the cursor on your screen to latitude 25⁰01’49” south and 128⁰19’05” east. This is elevated ground just east of the Giles Meteorological Station at Warakurna in Western Australia. Click and drag the street view icon to that spot and look at the ground-level view directly to the north. Three mounts with shadowed tops, to some people looking like three women’s heads in sun-bonnets, can be seen. These three peaks are typical Central Australian hills with a sloping side going up to a cliff-fringed top. Because we are looking at the southern side of the hills, and here in the southern hemisphere the sun passes overhead to the north of us, that little cliff is usually in shadow, creating this “sun-bonnet” look. Again, not everyone’s imagination would interpret this view as “three women in sun-bonnets,” but Lasseter’s imagination did.
Please note, I am not saying these three hills are Lasseter’s landmarks, and neither do I say they are not. There are many such cliff-topped hills in Central Australia. However it is likely that Lasseter’s three hills will be seen to look something like these three when viewed from the south against the noonday sun. Find three such hills, together with the associated “Quaker hat” shaped hill and the lakelet which Lasseter described, and you could be well on the way to discovering his gold reef.
Only if the three hills are of reasonable size will they show up in this way on your computer screen. It is quite possible Lasseter’s hills are too small to be found even by moving the cursor across the landscape. For example, Errol Coote’s map, Map 7 in the Map Gallery, has three hills located at 25⁰03’ south and 127⁰47’ east. Coote flew over this area, so must have seen them from the air. But they cannot be located by your cursor with any certainty, the country there being very uneven. On the other hand, Ion Idriess’ map from CAGE, my Map 6, shows three hills marked ten miles (sixteen kilometres) south-west of Lake Christopher. You will find these with your cursor, the centre hill being at 24⁰53’00.24” south and 127⁰21’12.92” east. You should be zoomed in to about one kilometre above the earth, and you will see the elevation number goes up to 465 metres at that spot. The other two hills of the same height are at 24⁰53’42.06” south and 127⁰21’17.84” east, and a hill somewhat larger in area at 24⁰52’19.55” south and 127⁰20’26.28” east.
Of course, this district has been thoroughly searched in the past and no reef found. Obviously, this quest is not easy. But remember, technology is constantly changing, Google Earth is constantly improving its satellite imagery, and so one day a searcher may perhaps recognise Lasseter’s landmarks and rediscover his gold reef.
Should you think this idea is far-fetched, consider the case of a young man named Saroo Brierley. As a five year old boy in India, he became lost by being locked in a train carriage and taken far across the country to Kolkata. Unable to tell authorities where he came from, he was after a time adopted by a Tasmanian couple and grew up in Australia. But he never forgot the basic landmarks of his home district in India, the arrangement of platforms on railway stations, the railway line itself, a water tower, a river and dam, etc. Twenty-five years later he began searching on Google Earth for those landmarks. After a long, obsessive search, he recognised them on his computer screen, even tracking through the streets and finding the roof of his childhood home. He flew to India, and, in an emotional homecoming, was reunited with his long-lost family.1
Even Bob Lasseter, son of the famous prospector, admitted to film maker Luke Walker that when he is at home he wishes he was out searching in the desert, but when he is in the desert with all its inconveniences he wishes he was at home searching on Google Earth.
With a view to helping those who wish to join in the modern digital search for Lasseter’s reef, I append here two more aids: firstly, a Map Gallery of interesting maps from past searchers; and secondly, a Gazetteer which gives the latitude and longitude of almost every geographical feature and place mentioned in the tale told above, the true story of my great-uncle Sam Hazlett and his long quest for gold.
- Brierley, Saroo, A Long Way Home, Viking/Penguin, Melbourne, 2013
Copyright 2015 Jim McKeague
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