Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s Footsteps

leichhardt footstepsI went for a walk last week with Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s footsteps. German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt disappeared in the Australian interior in 1848 with his team of men and animals on a quest to open up Australia to Europeans. Simpson was a drover and bushman who lived in many of the places opened up from Leichhardt explorations, including the place where he possibly died. Leichhardt’s disappearance after leaving Mt Abundance remains a great Australian mystery littered with near misses of evidence.

Simpson is an experienced bushman who turned to writing late in life. Aged 65, he published his life story in Packhouse Drover. “In Leichhardt’s footsteps” is his fifth book and is crammed with anecdotes from Simpson’s life in western Queensland. The most memorable line in the book has nothing to do with Leichhardt but Simpson’s mate who, while holed up in Boulia’s only hotel, entertained his friends in the morning on the veranda by holding a full two gallon jug of water on his erect member.

Simpson’s connection to Leichhardt was also related to Boulia, one of Queensland’s westernmost towns. Leichhardt may well have come this way as he sought a way to the west coast, Burke and Wills certainly came through here as they headed north in 1860. Both expeditions were before the birth of Boulia. Although Queensland had separated from NSW in 1859, this area, which Peter Saenger called “Queensland’s Western Afterthought“, was not yet part of the new colony. Western Queensland ended at latitude 141 degrees east which marks the border with South Australia. The three degrees of land to 138 degrees east that marks the border with NT (then South Australia) was contested by Queensland, SA and Victoria. Though Victoria had no contiguous border with the region, they financed Burke and Wills’ expedition. When it went wrong, Queensland led explorations to find them and the area was included in the northern colony in 1862.

The Burke and Wills mystery was solved thanks to John King’s survival, but none of Leichhardt’s men survived the disappearance 12 years earlier. Where they went and what happened to them remains conjecture but almost exactly 100 years later Simpson and his mates may have stumbled on their last camp site. That was on Glemormiston station, half way between Boulia and the NT border, as remote a settlement today as then.

In 1848 it was the home of the Wonkajera people, who grew a narcotic called pituri along well-established trade routes. When Simpson arrived in 1947, the Wonkajera and their pituri were long gone replaced by cattle stations. In May 1948 (almost 100 years to the day when Leichhardt and his crew were last heard from at Mt Abundance) Simpson was mustering cattle through a patch of gidgee trees when something caught his eye. It was a piece of iron on the ground, scorched by fire and turned up by a horse hoof. When the team investigated they found a saddle buried in the dirt.

They found other packs and riding saddles with bits of steel scattered over a wider area. When the men discovered steel buttons and buckles they were convinced they had stumbled on a camp from the distant past – one whose inhabitants suffered a bad end. Simpson found two stirrup irons of an unusual design. He took them as a keepsake but were later lost when sold with all his droving gear. Back at camp no one had heard of the relics the men had found. Glenormiston had been settled for 70 years so it seemed likely this camp was from before then. One man said it could be from the Leichhardt expedition as iron and steel survive a long time in low humidity and arid soil.

Simpson planned a return trip but it would be almost 40 years before it would happen. He and his mates fell out with the station owner not long after the find and they left the property and its tantalising relics. Simpson forgot exactly where the site was and the relics were “disdiscovered”. Simpson worked all over Queensland, but memories of the Glenormiston find never left him nor the nagging feeling it was related to Leichhardt.

Ludwig Leichhardt was an impoverished German with few connections who improbably crossed Australia south to north in 1845-1856 for the loss of only one life. He was pronounced a hero on his return in Sydney and plotted an even bigger adventure east to west. His first go was thwarted by floods and illness and in his second attempt he disappeared without trace. The men on his first failed trip east-west painted Leichhardt as a liar, thief, coward and martinet and his reputation suffered as British Australia turned against the Prussian. It wasn’t until the 20th century  Leichhardt’s reputation as a great explorer was re-established.

Simpson mentioned his Glenormiston finds in “Packhorse Drover” and it rekindled his interest in Leichhardt. His reading of Leichhardt’s life convinced him the German was a superb explorer and competent bushman whose reputation was unfairly maligned. Simpson was fascinated by the mystery of the disappearance and the many failed attempts to find traces of the expedition. Leichhardt had seven or eight men (he left with seven but may have picked up an eighth at Mt Abundance), 77 animals, carts, tents and other paraphernalia. There are trees blazed with L and LL scattered through the outback and tales of massacres and “white aborigines” though none have been verified. The only genuine artefact ever found was a gunplate marked “Ludwig Leichhardt 1848” apparently found in a tree near the WT/NT border. The person who found it is long dead, the tree cannot be found with accuracy and in any case it may have been put there by Aboriginals not by Leichhardt.

One legend about Leichhardt’s disappearance concerned Glenormiston station. When the station was taken up in 1875, manager John Richard Skuthorpe was told of a very old white man who live with Aborigines on the Mulligan River south of the station, speaking an unknown language. Skuthorpe found the man was dead and buried with a saddle bag containing his papers. Skuthorpe became convinced the man was the German Classen who went with Leichhardt on the final expedition. Skuthorpe’s belief was based on a story conman Andrew Hume told about meeting Classen in the NT many years after the disappearance.

Simpson decided to have another go at finding the Glenormiston relics. He contacted the other surviving drover from the 1948 trip and with the help of an ABC documentary team and other parties, decided to find the site. Simpson had two goes at finding the relics, first in 1996 and again in 1998. Both were frustrating failures as neither he nor the other drover could remember which part of this giant haystack their pin might be buried in. The country changed considerably in 50 years and regrowth was hiding the site. Simpson concluded his report that “although the search was unsuccessful, the fact remains – the relics are there.”

Simpson is still alive and ABC Landline did a profile on the “droving poet” in August. The program harked back on Simpson’s part in the glory years of droving until replaced by trucks in the 1960s. Simpson was, as Professor Bill Gammage said, a “spokesman for a way of life that’s vanishing very quickly”. Any hope clues into Leichhardt’s fate might be discovered is disappearing at the same rate. The Glenormiston Relics, like the fate of Leichhardt, remain a mystery.


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