Gold Fever

article by Noelene Martin , illustrations by Peter Sheehan

WHAT WOULD YOU do if someone told you about a place where there was enough gold to make you a millionaire, and offered to share it with you? 

Would you believe them? Or would you laugh it off as a joke and forget about it? 

That was the question facing some men in March 1930, and this is the story of what happened afterwards. 

It was the beginning of the Great Depression. Thousands of people were out of work and money was scarce. There was little hope for the future. Then Lewis Harold Lasseter walked into the Sydney office of John Bailey, the president of the Australian Workers Union, and said he could change all that. 

He told Bailey and the other men in his office that he had been prospecting for rubies in Central Australia in 1897 when he discovered a reef of gold. It was 7 miles (11.2 kilometres) long and 12 feet (about 3.6 metres)wide and the gold in it was ‘thick as plums in a pudding.’ 

Lasseter said he had collected some samples, but as he headed back through the bush he became lost. He would have died, but an Afghan camel driver found him and took him to a nearby surveying camp. A surveyor, a man called Harding, nursed him back to life. 

Lasseter said he showed Harding the gold and Harding suggested they return to the reef. It took three years before they could get everything organised, but eventually they set out, found their way back to the reef and collected more samples. They took the bearings of the reef their watches and the sun. 

On their return to Carnarvon in Western Australia, they discovered that their watches had been a long way from telling the correct time, so their information about the reef’s location was unreliable. They were still able to register their find, but now they needed someone with money to help locate their reef of gold and mine it. 

No-one was interested. At that time, Western Australia was gripped by gold fever. Gold was everywhere. The mines of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie were booming. No-one wanted to work a reef in Central Australia when there was so much gold closer at hand. 

They failed to raise the money. Harding died and Lasseter moved to the USA. 

In the years since then, Lasseter had tried a number of times to organise a thoroughly-equipped expedition to look for his reef. Now, thirty-three years after his original discovery, Lasseter turned up in Sydney to make one more attempt. 

John Bailey and is friends listened carefully. If what Lasseter said was true, it would be one of the richest goldfields ever recorded. But was he telling the truth, and would he be able to find the reef after all that time? 

They checked up on Lasseter as best they could, and found that a reef called Harding’s reef had been registered in the area described by Lasseter. They asked a bushman friend, Fred Blakeley, to listen to Lasseter’s story. Enough of the story rang true for Blakeley to say they should give it a go. A new goldfield would be good for Australia, they said. It would solve the country’s money problems. It would also be good for them: it would make them millionaires. 

They formed a company—Central Australian Gold Exploration Company—and offered to sell shares. Amazingly, even though it was the Depression and money was hard to find, they raised the thousands of pounds needed to get an expedition together in just two days. The search for Lasseter’s Reef had begun. 

It was the best-equipped prospecting expedition that had ever set out in Australia. A six-wheeled two-ton truck, specially made for desert exploration, was provided free. Petrol was donated and they bought a plane, the Golden Quest. The equipment and the six men who made up the party were transported to Alice Springs free of charge. The newspapers were full of the story. 

Blakeley was the leader, and Lasseter the guide, but Lasseter refused to say exactly where the reef was located. ‘If you know that, you won’t need me any more,’ he said. Instead, he wrote the bearings and landmarks on a sheet of paper in invisible ink and left it in a sealed envelope in a Sydney bank. It could be opened if anything happened to him during the expedition. 

At Alice Springs, the supplies and equipment were ready. But Fred Blakeley was having doubts about Lasseter as strange holes began to appear in his story. For example, Lasseter said he had bought supplies at the General Store in Alice Springs when he had been there 33 years before. But the store was only 20 years old. 

 

* * * 

The expedition finally left Alice Springs on 21 July 1930. It was a disaster. 

Few white people had travelled through that country before, though of course the Aranda and Pitjantjatjara peoples had been living there for thousands of years. The land was heavily timbered and the expeditionaries had to make the road as they went. It was slow, hard work. At first they chopped down the trees, but later they just rammed them with the truck. They had to stop very often to fix punctures in the tyres. 

Then the country changed to low hills of soft, silky sand and the truck was constantly getting bogged. The Aboriginal people of the country watched, sometimes from a distance, sometimes introducing themselves. In 1980, a man named Jimmy Tjungurrayi told a researcher what he remembered. ‘These were strange men, these whitefellas,’ he said. 

The Golden Quest crashed into a fallen tree. When a replacement plane—Golden Quest II—arrived, it turned out to be hardly any use. 

And Fred Blakeley had his hands full dealing with Lasseter. 

Not far out of Alice Springs, Lasseter pointed to two bean trees and said he had swung his hammock between them in 1897. Blakeley knew bean trees only live for 20 years. They could not possibly be the same trees. 

A few days later, Lasseter told one of the others that he had designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He said that Bradfield, whose design had been used for the Bridge, had ‘pinched’ Lasseter’s idea. He wasn’t going to let anyone steal his reef. 

Lasseter had promised to tell Blakely where the reef was once the expedition was on its way. But he still would not give any information. Because the bearings he and Harding had taken were incorrect, he would have to rely on certain landmarks. He wouldn’t say what those landmarks were. 

At the end of August, as they thought they were getting close to their goal, Lasseter and Blakeley climbed a hill (Mt Marjorie) and surveyed the landscape.  

Lasseter scanned the horizon through his binoculars, then turned to Blakeley and announced, ‘We’re a hundred and fifty miles too far north.’ That meant 240 kilometres more travel. Blakeley was furious. He accused Lasseter of being a liar and a con man who had led them on a monstrous wild goose chase. 

However, after much arguing and letter-writing, and an advance flight on Golden Quest II, Blakeley decided to give Lasseter’s story one more chance. The expedition set out once more. 

Then, three days in the new direction, from the top of another hill, they saw that the way ahead was completely impassable for their truck with the amount of supplies they had left, and finally realised they had come to the end of their journey. Fred Blakeley named the place Lasseter’s Lookout and turned around. They were going back. 

Lasseter protested, but Blakeley had made up his mind. He had had enough. The truck had travelled 2400 kilometres since leaving Alice Springs, the hot weather and the rain were coming and the expedition had found nothing. 

 

* * *  

The party returned to Alice Springs. But Lasseter decided to continue. He teamed up with Paul Johns, a German dingo-scalper they had met on their travels, who had some camels. However, after some days, Paul Johns also returned to Alice Springs, with detailed instructions on how Lasseter was to be followed and located. Lasseter went on alone, taking two camels and still believing he could find the reef. 

But it was not to be. The camels ran away, leaving Lasseter with no water or supplies. He sheltered in a cave in the Petermann Ranges, where some Pitjantjatjara people cared for him. Some of these people were boys who, many years later when they were old men, told one writer about Lasseter’s last days. 

Even though he was weak, exhausted and starving, Lasseter was still curious to learn some of the Pitjantjatjara language, and to teach the children about ‘whitefella numbers’.  But although they gave him food, he wasted away and finally died of starvation—near the end of January 1931, a little more than six months after the expedition had set out from Alice Springs. 

Johns faithfully followed all the instructions that Lasseter had given him, but no white searchers found any trace of Lasseter until a man called Bob Buck set out and returned in March 1931, saying he had found Lasseter’s body and a diary in a cave. He said he had buried the body. 

But many questions remained unanswered. 

Some people said Bob Buck had never found Lasseter’s body: he had made up the story for the sake of the reward. Perhaps he had faked the diary: it was remarkably clean for a book that had been written in a place where the red dust finds its way into everything. Yet there were pages of numbers in it, which fits the story of the Pitjantjatjara witnesses. 

The diary staged Lasseter had rediscovered his reef and pegged his claim. Was this true, or were they the writings of a dying man trying to justify himself? No gold has ever been found in that part of the country. 

Some people said Lasseter had not died but had found the gold and disappeared, a rich man. 

Does Lasseter’s gold reef exist? Most people think not. But if they are right, why did Lasseter go through so much trouble for something that wasn’t there? Others believe it is out there somewhere. Even today, people load up their four-wheel drives or fly their aeroplanes in Central America, searching for Lasseter’s reef of gold. 

Where it is, if it exists, remains a mystery.