Two hundred years ago tomorrow, a boy was born into a poor Prussian family – but Australians remember him to this day. Ludwig Leichhardt grew to be a shy man, a largely self-taught expert in many fields of research and study.
And he was a draft dodger. That may have been a factor in his move to Australia in 1842, but it was primarily driven by his fascination with the vast and then unexplored (by Europeans) interior of this country, as depicted on the maps and charts he had so closely examined back in his homeland.
Leichhardt is now remembered as one of the early explorers, for his copious writings on his travels and scientific explorations, and perhaps most of all for the mystery of his disappearance while trying to cross Australia from east to west in 1848.
His first expedition in 1844-45 was a triumph. Leichhardt led a party of eight from the Darling Downs, in south-east Queensland, to Port Essington, on the Coburg Peninsula, in the Northern Territory. This was a five thousand kilometre overland trek across country entirely unknown to Europeans. Even today, it is still a long and challenging journey. Back then, it was an astonishing feat, which earned Leichhardt a form of celebrity that must have been a torment to a man of limited people skills.
In 2011, author John Bailey wrote a biography of Leichhardt – Into The Unknown. John has traced his story back to Prussia, and follows his journey to Australia and that first memorable expedition. LISTEN to part 1 of my interview with John Bailey here
Sadly, Leichhardt’s subsequent overland expeditions were memorable for all the wrong reasons. In late 1846, he set out to ride west across Australia to what was then a very new settlement called Perth. The party was beset by illness and food shortages and the trip was abandoned within six months. He tried again in 1848, and had perhaps set off before he was really ready, as some financial backers had deserted him after the 1846 failure.
He was never seen again, and his disappearance is one of the last remaining great mysteries of 19th century exploration. There are many theories about his fate. John Bailey has his own, and believes some trace of the expedition will eventually be found.
So, 200 years after his birth, how should we remember Ludwig Leichhardt? Clearly, he’s part of our national story. We have streets, landmarks, a river, a suburb and an electorate named after him. John Bailey regards him as a man of achievement in science and inland exploration.
Into The Unknown was published in 2011 by Macmillan Publishers Australia