Gold has been an enduring feature of Australia’s story since the finds near Bathurst, NSW in 1851. Despite the fabulous riches uncovered at Ballarat and Bendigo, the gold story has been mostly one of failure. That less inspiring but more human story is told in Barry McGowan’s book Fool’s Gold. It tells tales from many unsuccessful rushes across the land. Each is a tale of hope and then desperation as the gold is not there in payable quantities or indeed in some cases an Australian El Dorado where the gold is not there at all. McGowan’s centrepiece story involves the mythical Lasseter’s Reef in the heart of the Northern Territory.
The reef is named for Lewis Lasseter, for whom the highway that links the Stuart Hwy with Uluru is also named. Lasseter was inspired by the 1923 book The Man with the Iron Door written by American Harold Bell Wright. The book was about prospectors in the Canyon of Gold, Arizona, and Lasseter was so impressed he added Harold Bell to his name that same year. He worked at many occupations, marrying twice and fathering five children. He lived in England and the US 1901-1909 and then was a market gardener and road maintenance man in NSW. He worked on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Canberra’s parliament house.
Lasseter first came to the attention of authorities in October 1929 with a letter to the minister of defence about a gold reef in central Australia. The letter said that for 18 years Lasseter had known about a “vast gold bearing reef” in central Australia with assays taken over 22km of reef showing values of three ounces to the ton. Lasseter said when he was there he was without water for four days and suggested an aerial survey of the headwaters of the Gasgoyne River (WA) for a gravitational pipeline to the reef. As a “competent surveyor” Lasseter offered to do the job for £2000 and suggested five million pounds would be needed to develop the reef.
The minister forwarded the letter to HW Gepp, chairman of the Development and Migration Commission. Gepp was already talking about an aerial and truck survey of the western MacDonnells with Dr Keith Ward, the government’s consultant geologist on the Northern Territory, 1925-1931. Gepp and Ward met Lasseter who told them the reef was 400km south-west of Alice Springs in the western end of the MacDonnell Ranges. Lasseter said the gold was found in floaters (rocks or ground that appear solid but not attached to the bedrock) and he had carried a considerable amount until his horse died near Lake Amadeus, 50km north of Uluru. After that he took a smaller quantity out on foot. Lasseter would not disclose the exact location unless the government provided a water supply. The government men replied they could not guarantee that without establishing the field’s feasibility.
Gepp told the Minister the dispatch of a party to the reef was “a gamble” and recommended it only be done as part of an organised prospecting campaign in Central Australia. He proposed to discuss it at the 1930 Geological Conference. In the meantime Lasseter wrote again saying he would only seek payment if the assay lived up to claims. He also said he would prefer to lead an expedition by truck even though he claimed he was in the Air Corps in the First World War – though there is no record of him there.
Labor won the federal election in February 1930 and Lasseter wrote to new Home Affairs minister Arthur Blakely to suggest equipping an expedition. Blakely turned it down but the letter gave momentum to the proposed discussion at the June Geological Conference. With the Depression taking hold, a desperate government was keen to explore money making schemes and a new gold discovery could be “of particular national advantage.”
This momentum was too slow for the impatient Lasseter. In March he wrote a letter to John Bailey, head of the Australian Workers Union, which Bailey forwarded to Blakely. Bailey suggested Arthur’s brother Fred Blakely would be ideal for the job, Fred Blakely was a highly regarded bushman and prospector who cycled Australia north to south in 1908. Arthur asked Fred if he fancied “a jaunt into Central Australia” saying they would get government support. It would also test out Lasseter.
In April 1930 Gepp agreed to provide a truck and a team including Fred Blakely. Lasseter would be paid the same as the others but given an advance to work his claim. Blakely met Lasseter and while he believed there was some truth to Lasseter’s claims he also felt there were gaps in the story. They agreed to a £50 share each and got four others to do the same. The six men met in Bailey’s office to discuss mining and a team of camels. Word had gotten around with others clamouring to join the syndicate. By the next meeting 20 people showed up.
Lasseter told Blakely he was first in the MacDonnell Ranges aged 17 at the back end of a ruby boom. One of the errors he told was he got there via train to Cloncurry. This was around 1897 though the train did not come to Cloncurry until 10 years later. Lasseter said he found no rubies and intended to travel overland to Carnarvon in WA. He struck out due west when he hit the reef. “Everywhere I examined I found gold,” he told Blakely. He continued west through harsh country and was found almost dead nine days later. He and the surveyor who rescued him went prospecting three years later and found the reef a second time. They took samples but with supplies running out they went back to Carnarvon.
Lasseter told similar stories to the other miners and speculators who grew excited about untold riches. An exception to the mood was Australian aviator Charles Ulm who said Lasseter’s bearings put him in the Indian Ocean and the project was “too hazy” for investment. Nonetheless a new company called Central Australian Gold Exploration (CAGE) was set up with £5000 capital. Thornycroft Motors donated a truck for six months, Atlantic Oil Company donated oil and petrol and governments and the railway provided free transport by train. CAGE bought an airplane named Golden Quest to be piloted by pilot and journalist Errol Coote. Also in the group were engineer and driver Philip Taylor, prospector George Sutherland and truck driver Fred Colson. Blakely was the leader and Lasseter the guide. Aboriginal stockman Mickey joined the expedition from Hamilton Downs station, west of Alice. Aboriginal Affairs was in Fred’s brother Arthur’s remit and he fielded letters from many worried by comments from Bailey the expedition was “armed to the teeth”. It was a legitimate concern barely two years after the nearby Coniston Massacre. Blakely said he had full confidence in his brother and “none of the party would interfere with Aborigines”.
The party set out from Alice Springs on July 21, 1930 travelling 400km west through tough country to an airstrip at Ilbilla. Along the way the truck was damaged and Coote and Colson returned to Alice by car for a spare part leaving the plane at a makeshift runway at Taylors Creek. After four days at Ilbilla Coote and Colson left again to pick up the plane. Coote had not arrived after the agreed number of days so Blakely and Taylor returned by truck to Taylors Creek. They found the plane crashed and a note to say Colson had driven Coote back to Alice. Colson arrived back at the Creek the following morning and they rejoined the others at Ilbilla.
The full party headed 200km west to Mount Marjorie where Lasseter told Blakely they needed to go 240km south. This was not consistent with earlier statements. Lasseter admitted he misled on some points as he was suspicious of one of the party. Blakely felt for the first time Lasseter had never been here before. It heightened suspicions already received in Alice where a local thought Lasseter’s description of the area in the 1890s was nonsense. Lasseter was now moody, secretive and distrustful leading to many rows with Blakeley.
Lasseter gave new directions which meant returning to Ilbilla where they waited for Colson to arrive by truck. There was also a newcomer, dingo hunter Paul Johns, who arrived with five camels and two Aboriginal helpers, Blakely asked him to stay there for a few weeks in case they needed him. Eventually Coote arrived by replacement plane but told Blakely it did not have the range to continue further and needed to be refitted in Adelaide. Before he left again he took Lasseter in the air to find landmarks. On return Lasseter initially said nothing but under questioning from Coote admitted he had seen the reef from the air. He would not divulge where it was as he had no confidence in Blakely or Colson. Coote did not share this information with the others.
When they got to the location Lasseter suggested, they were stuck in an eroded escarpment of hills and mesas which the truck could not handle. Lasseter changed his story again and said the reef was further south near the Petermann Ranges. Blakely said they would have to backtrack 500km, the area had been well prospected and was even further away from Carnarvon. With summer approaching Blakely decided to end the expedition. They went back to Ilbilla where they located Johns and his camels. They agreed Lasseter would continue the expedition with Johns. After the pair left, the others were shocked to find Lasseter had earlier telegrammed head office with the news he had found the reef.
Blakely went back to Sydney to inform directors of the mission’s failure. Some shareholders aware of Lasseter’s telegram thought it was a Blakely doublecross. Coote flew to Adelaide where he told people Lasseter was excited during the aerial survey though it was 250km from where he said the reef was. Coote was then asked to fly back to Uluru to find Lasseter. Taylor would go there by truck. Coote arrived at Uluru with a damaged plane and had to fly back to Adelaide for repairs. When he got back the directors’ instructions had changed; he was to collect Taylor and fly home. Lasseter was left to his own devices.
A few days later Coote was in Alice Springs when Johns arrived without Lasseter. Johns told Coote they headed west past the Petermann Ranges towards the Warburton Ranges but had a falling out and Lasseter stormed out. While Johns rested with the camels Lasseter returned after two days saying he had found the reef. Lasseter had samples but refused to show them to Johns. Johns called Lasseter a liar. They fought and then calmed down and the following morning Lasseter asked Johns to return to Alice for supplies. He would stay with the camels. He gave him a letter which Johns later opened. It said Lasseter found the reef and had pegged leases though it was not as rich as he thought.
According to the letter Lasseter intended to return to Ilbilla and if Johns didn’t turn up he would go to Lake Christopher to meet a man called Johanson. Johns said Lasseter got hopelessly lost in waterholes near Kata Tjuta. It is not known who the Johanson is, though a W. Johanson of Boulder, WA later claimed to have received a letter from John Bailey to get ready to join the expedition. It’s not known why no one else in the expedition knew about Johanson or his relationship to Lasseter, one of many mysteries.
A plane rescue mission set out on December 15 but went missing. On New Years Day 1931 another aerial rescue mission set out from Point Cook, Victoria. Using Hermannsburg Mission as a base it ran reconnaissance flights. They found the missing men from the earlier flight rescue mission which crashed near Haasts Bluff but there was no sign of Lasseter who was presumed dead. Evidence of Lasseter’s arrival at Lake Christopher was found with an inscription on a salt pan and a tree marked “Lasseter 2.12.30”. Bailey said Lasseter did not meet Johanson because the latter had been speared by Aborigines. According to the diary Lasseter returned to Ilbilla. The diary said he pegged the reef but did not give a date or location. Not long after, Johns’ camels bolted and he set up camp in a cave at Hull Creek in the Petermanns to await rescue. Local man Bob Buck found his footprints with the help of Aborigines and found Lasseter’s body at Shaws Creek.
Buck also found the diary buried in the ashes of the fire and from the embers he pieced together Lasseter’s last days. Lasseter said the Aborigines were “hostile” though they befriended him and caught the camels after they bolted. They also fed him nardoo (the food which kept John King alive in the Burke & Wills saga) but he could not digest it. He gradually weakened and became blind. The local tribes weeped when he eventually died. Among his last words in the diary were: “What good is a reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread.”
With Lasseter dead, his reef descended into myth. Newspaper articles claimed there was an Aladdin’s Cave of wealth somewhere in the Red Centre. Despite all the doubts and lies expedition members still believed Lasseter’s story. A second CAGE expedition in 1931 was equally fruitless. The same year Ion Idriess’s novel Lasseter’s Last Ride: El Dorado Found was an imaginative if mostly invented reworking of the story. It was a bestseller. A newspaper review lauded it as an exciting true story. Lasseter’s Reef continued to dazzle prospectors throughout the 1930s though none found any workings. Only a few doubters such as Michael Terry were prepared to spoil the fun by noting all 83 parties that went through “Lasseter’s country” without a single authenticated gold discovery. Yet even in 2013, there were those who say they found Lasseter’s El Dorado on Google Earth.
Barry McGowan concludes the reef was a product of Lasseter’s feverish imagination. He noted Lasseter’s 1917 Army discharged said he had “marked hallucinations”. With his mood swings between optimism and distrustfulness and his ever-changing story, he was not unlike Andrew Hume who told similar tales about Ludwig Leichhardt. Lasseter would probably now be diagnosed as bipolar. In his final act of deception, he was the victim though his dying spared him ridicule and harsh judgement. His act of death, McGowan concludes, tranformed Lasseter and his reef into one of Australia’s most enduring legends.