Lasseter's Reef and the Lore of Lost Treasures
© Dr Graham Seal
Near the end of his book, Lasseter - the Making of a Legend (1985), Billy Marshall-Stoneking quotes Papunya man Shorty Lungkarta describing the continuing Australian obsession with the fabulously rich but inconveniently 'lost' gold reef as 'awhitefella dreaming'. This perceptive judgement makes a fitting conclusion to a work whose strength is the author's knowledge and presentation of Aboriginal values and attitudes. Marshall-Stoneking's inspiration for the later research and writing of his book came originally from his recollection of a childhood viewing of the 1956 feature film Green Fire - about a 'lost' South American emerald mine, in which Stewart Granger mentions 'Lasseter's Reef'.
Green Fire is one of a number of films and innumerable printed fictions that deal with the 'El Dorado' theme of the quest for a fabulous 'lost' treasure of one kind or another. The Treasure of Sierra Madre is probably the most famous of these. Another example, this one based on a serious historical undertaking, was archaeologist Howard Carter's discovery of the fabulously rich tomb of Tutenkamen in Egypt. The ill-fate, curses, etc. associated with this important discovery have formed the basis for at least one Hollywood film, documentaries and a number of books.
These and similar fictions and 'factions' cater to an ongoing fascination with the belief in getting rich quickly through the chance discovery of a mysterious lost treasure. The 'mystery', the history and the folklore ofLasseter's Reef have been kicking around Australia for almost a century now. The background to the story ofthe reef, Lasseter himself, the obsessive beliefs it has generated and the numerous books, articles and fruitless expeditions in search of it, make instructive reading. The elements ofthe tale add up to a revealing insight into the aquisitive, ever-hopefulfacet of European-Australian folk consciousness.
The approved version of the story usually goes like this. In 1897 a man named Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter became lost in central Australia. During his wanderings he discovered a fabulously rich reef of gold but, in difficulties, was unable to mark or otherwise document the location of the reef. Lasseter, still holding grimly to a bagful of very rich gold specimens, was rescued just in time by an Afghan camelier.
Three years later, in partnership witha prospector named Harding, Lasseter made an expedition to re-discover his lost reef of gold. They were succesful, took bearings of the location, but on returning to Carnarvon discovered that their watches were slow. This meant that the bearings of the reef were incorrect. This, at least, was the story that Lasseter peddled. He tried for years to obtain backing for a further expedition and in 1916 convinced the give-anything-ago-for-gold West Australian government to fund two expeditions to find the reef. Both failed.
It was not until 1930 that Lasseter was again successful in obtaining backing. The Central Australian Gold Company was formed by a number of investors who had faith in Lasseter's reef and a large expedition was 5mounted as quickly as possible. This expedition suffered mishaps, accidents and bad luck almost from the first. Eventually, after considerable difficulty and bad blood between expedition members, the party spli tup, Lasseter was stranded in the desert, finally dying in the Petermann Range, probably at the end of January, 1931.
The famous bushman, Bob Buck, was commissioned by the Company to find Lasseter. After considerable hardship and danger, Buck found and, allegedly, buried Lasseter's remains near Shaw's Creek in March. The bushman also found the dead prospector's diary, letters and other effects.
Undeterred, the Central Australian Gold Company mounted another expedition. The failure of this attempt did not discourage others from later setting out to find the reef and there are many people who still believe that it exists. The story of Lasseter and his reef is fascinating and continues to attract both speculation and hard-headed investigation and investment. Lasseter's diary, which included a map of the supposed location of the reef, together with his letters, have been the sources for much speculation and activity.
Not only have a great number of expeditions been undertaken to find the reef, but at least seven books have been written about Lasseter and his treasure. The best-known of these is the semi-fictional account of Ion Idriess, the often reprinted Lasseter's Last Ride (1931). But there have been plenty of others, including some written by members of Lasseter's 1930 expedition.
In 1957 the American television explorer Lowell Thomas made a documentary of the story that included interviews with the aging Bob Buck and the transportation of a camera crew to Shaw's Creek, where Lasseter's grave was opened for the cameras. This was intended to settle speculation that the remains were not those of Lasseter and that the prospector had in fact made his way, probably via Euchla, to safety only to disappear - either into an obscure but wealthy life if he had re-located the reef, or into anonymous shame because he had failed.
Whatever the truth, a number of people claimed to have seen or met Lasseter in Australia or overseas after the date of his death. And there is a curse. One of the expedition members took a churinga , a sacred Aboriginal artefact, back to England. Almost immediately he was plagued by misfortunes and deaths in the family. The depression he suffered from this caused him to destroy the precious but cursed object. The story of Lasseter and his reef had passed into folklore.
What may seem to be a uniquely Australian legend has many of the traditional elements of 'lost treasure' folklore known around the world. There are a few recurring elements in this lore, almost all of which relate very well to the story of Lasseter's Reef. Firstly, there is a fabulously rich treasure of some kind. It is lost and in a remote and/or mysterious location. It is often guarded by fierce native peoples, who sometimes put a curse on the treasure and/or its searchers. If there is no curse, then some form of ill-luck will attend the discoverer(s)and/or searchers of the trove.
An intrepid male explorer stumbles on the trove but, barely surviving, loses the location in the course of struggling back to civilisation with a sample of the find. But there is a map! If there isn't a map, there will bea diary, journal or other document which is either too cryptic to be useful or has conveniently and usually mysteriously disappeared. The map/document and tales and legends of the trove entices future hopefuls to search in vain and often terminally for the wealth. The treasure remains 'lost'.
Compare this with the story of 'The Silver Reef', as told by Bill Beatty many years ago in his A Treasury of Australian Folk Tales and Traditions (1968). This fabulously rich lode is said to be somewhere in the Wyndham and King Sound region of Western Australia's remote north. It was discovered by a Malay merchant called Hadji Ibrahim sometime before European colonisation. After selling a load of silver ore from the trove in Macassar, Ibrahim returned for more, only to be shipwrecked and drowned. But - wait for it - Ibrahim kept a journal of his voyages and recorded all the details of his find. But he did not mention the location, so the treasure was 'lost'.
But, the story continues. A colourfully-named local - 'Mad Jack' - was found dead in his cutter in 1909 near Yampi Sound. His body was pierced by several spear wounds and his head split open with a tomahawk, the discoverers of the body found a few ouncesof gold in the cabin. They also found a kerosene tin full of silver ore. Some years later, an employee of Ibrahim's great grandson became obsessed with the legend of the silver reef and made many visits to the area to find it. According to Beatty's version of the tale, "he ended his days there and was last seen in 1939 travelling with a treacherous tribe of wild natives in the Kimberley country.". (76)
Here again is the fabulously rich treasure being discovered in a remote area. No curse, but poor Ibrahim certainly suffers ill-luck. There is a document that is more enticing than useful. We have the death of a subsequent searcher for the silver, with a strong suggestion that the 'natives' murdered him, either to protect the trove or punish him for stealing from it. The story also entices a later searcher into obsession with the treasure. He is last heard of disappearing into the wilderness with the 'treacherous tribe of wild natives'. Readers will notbe surprised to learn that the silver reef, like Lasseter's reef and many of the other fabulously rich treasure troves of the world, remains 'lost'.
There are less well-known 'lost reefs' in the Monaro district('Lindo's Reef') and on Cape York Peninsula ('Dead Man's Secret'), and in north-west Queensland between Cloncurry and Georgetown. But it isn't only fabulously rich mineral reefs that are lost in Australian folklore. Frank Gardiner's gold is still missing. This treasure was the proceeds of theEugowra Rocks robbery of 1862, masterminded by Gardiner and involving a number of other prominent bushrangers of the period, probably including Ben Hall. A portion of the gold from the robbery was never recovered and there are persistent stories that it isstill there, despite other stories that it was found by others, including Gardiner's own sons, in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Other bushrangers, including Ben Hall and 'Thunderbolt', also have well-developed hidden/lost treasure tales. Then there is the giant dog god idol made of tortoiseshell on Moa island in the Torres Strait and there are legends of buried or sunken treasure troves throughout the country and around the coastline.
One of my favourite lost treasure yarns has no map, but involves luck, human frailty and the skeleton of a horse. Brock's Creek is about 160 kilometers south-west of Darwin. A group of men made a lucky strike on a very rich find there in1880. Swearing off the grog, they worked hard to get as much of the gold into the saddle-packs of one of their horses, before the wet season and lack of food overcame them. At the end of a week or so they had the horses saddled and ready to go with a fortune in the saddle-packs.
They decided to have a drink to celebrate their good fortune. 'The one' became 'the few' and then too many. Their drunken merrymaking frightened the horses away, including the one with the gold. Despite months of desparate searching, the men never found the horse. It is said that prospectors inthe Northern Territory still look closely at any bones they find in the hope that they may stumble again across the 'Dead Horse Treasure'.
Despite this rich lode of lost treasure lore, it is Lasseter and his reef that continue to fascinate many Australians. Billy Marshall Stoneking's book on Lasseter and the reef has been reprinted. In recent years at least three new books about Lasseter have been published. A number of private expeditions have tried to find the reef, and even the army had a try at it some years back - they called it an 'exercise'.
We don't want to let Lasseter or his reef go. Like Ned Kelly's contradictory tradition, it seems far too important to many of us. The Lasseter's Reef story is a version of the universal El Dorado, a beacon for the greedy and perhaps a few of the needy. But the particular meaning our version has for Australians may be that it symbolises the sense of awe, mystery and fear that most of us feel about 'the dead heart', 'the red centre', the unknown and (more worryingly) perhaps unknowable land and the culture within it. The lore of Lasseter's reef may be the closest 'whitefella' culture can come to the indigenous dreaming of this country.