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Friedrich Wilhelm ‘Ludwig’ Leichhardt was an accomplished scientist and deeply knowledgeable explorer. He completed one of the longest inland explorative journeys in Australia and opened up much of the country to pastoralism. He also left us with a fantastic unsolved mystery when he and his exploration party of five white men, two Aboriginal guides, seven horses, 20 mules and 50 bullocks disappeared in 1848, never to be seen again.
Leichhardt was born in Prussia (now Germany) on 23 October 1813. Growing up, he thirsted for knowledge, so studied medicine, philosophy, geology, natural sciences and physiology, and learned to speak six languages.
His fascination with natural history led him to Australia in 1842, where he conducted his own studies into geology, plants and animals. When Thomas Mitchell’s planned government-supported expedition from Sydney to Port Essington in Arnhem Land was cancelled, Leichhardt decided to go anyway, calling for volunteers and private sponsorship. His extraordinary, 4800-kilometre journey from Brisbane to Port Essington took more than a year and resulted in the death of several of his party, but it filled in large swathes of the map.
Returning to Sydney in 1846, Leichhardt was hailed the ‘Prince of Explorers’, and the Royal Geographical Society in London awarded him its Patron’s Medal. Leichhardt’s accurate and detailed maps and records, his assessments of good pastoral country, and botanical collections were widely revered. His medical skills probably saved the lives of two of his fellow expeditioners after they were seriously injured in a battle with Aboriginals on the Mitchell River.
Leichhardt immediately began planning more expeditions, particularly an east–west crossing of the continent from the Darling Downs to the settlement on the Swan River. After being forced back once, Leichhardt and his convoy left on the final, fateful expedition in 1848. They were never seen again, despite several extensive search parties and a £1000 reward offered by The Bulletin magazine for any evidence of the missing expedition.
A suitably eclectic array of things have been named after Leichhardt, including a river in north-west Queensland, a velvetfish in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a colourful Top End grasshopper and a Sydney suburb. Patrick White’s award-winning novel Voss is based on Leichhardt.