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Saturday, 11th April, 2015

How Lasseter’s death was reported in April, 1931 How Lasseter’s death was reported in April, 1931

The ill-fated search for the fabled “Lasseter’s Reef” had a connection to Broken Hill, an author has discovered.

Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter perished in the Northern Territory desert in 1931 after his government-backed expedition to find a fabulous reef of gold fell apart.

Author Dr Chris Clark delved into the mystery after discovering that a man who Lasseter had said shared the secret of the reef’s location was Dr Clark’s Swedish immigrant grandfather.

In his research, he found that Lasseter’s driver at the start of the adventure was a young mechanic from Broken Hill called J. Carter who worked at Glasson’s garage on the corner of Beryl and Oxide streets. That location is still occupied by a petrol station.

The Carter family has a long history in the Barrier, first in Wilcannia and later as graziers and shopkeepers in Broken Hill, although whether the young man was a member of this family is not known.

Dr Clark wrote to the BDT yesterday after having noted the recent achievement of having the whole of Broken Hill declared Australia’s first National Heritage city.

“I imagine that there might be heightened interest in rediscovering some of the city’s historical connections,” he said.

In the course of his research Dr Clark came across some details that were not generally known.

When the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company (CAGE, as it became known) was making arrangements in Sydney to mount its expedition with Lasseter as its guide, but not leader, it planned to make use of new technology to aid in the effort. 

“The expedition was equipped with an aircraft to give it unprecedented range to scout ahead of personnel on the ground, both to examine geological features and survey suitable routes for passage through the harsh terrain of Central Australia,” Dr Clark said.

The expedition also got a free loan for six months of a six-wheeled truck from the Thorneycroft company which made these vehicles.

“Although camels had long been the preferred means of getting around in Central Australia, it was believed, wrongly (as would eventually be discovered), that the use of mechanical transport would greatly facilitate the work of the expedition.”

Once it was decided that Alice Springs would be the assembly point for the expeditions’ members and equipment, the truck had to be brought from Sydney to the Alice. 

On July 7, 1930 the Thornycroft set off for Broken Hill. 

“Onboard was Lasseter, accompanying, I believe, a young driver named J. Carter who had been provided to the expedition by a garage proprietor in Broken Hill named Ron Glasson,” said Dr Clark.

After reaching Broken Hill, the truck went on to Quorn in South Australia. 

“We know all this (about Carter) only because, on arriving at Quorn on the morning of July 14, Lasseter wrote a note to Glasson to say that he considered Carter to be all that could be desired as an efficient and careful driver and mechanic.

“Carter’s services were still needed, however, for the next rail leg from Quorn to Alice Springs, and it was only then that he parted company with Lasseter and the Thornycroft, presumably returning to his employment in Glasson’s garage.”

After about a week in Alice Springs, the expedition set off on July 23 and headed west to the Ehrenberg Ranges beyond which Lasseter claimed he had first made his discovery of a fabulously rich reef of gold, nine miles long, in 1897 when he was only 17 years old.

“Within two months, the expedition had descended into dissention and disarray as it became only too apparent that Lasseter was a delusional liar who had never even been in that part of Australia before in his life,” Dr Clark wrote.

The main party returned to Alice Springs to await further instructions from the CAGE directors in Sydney, but Lasseter refused to go with them. 

“He stayed out in the big paddock to continue the quest, accompanied by a solitary dingo-hunter named Paul Johns and the trapper’s string of camels. 

“No-one knows whether he was then believing his own lies or desperately hoping to stumble on something remotely resembling the El Dorado he had promised his backers.”

After Johns began to question Lasseter’s sanity, Lasseter sent him to Alice Springs with letters to the company and to his wife.

“It was only at this stage that he began to mention the name Johanssen in connection with his reef discovery, stating that he believed this man, who hailed from Boulder City in Western Australia, had previously also come across the reef and shared the secret of its location. 

“Lasseter even asked the CAGE directors to find Johanssen and send him to meet him at a point 100 kilometres across the border with WA so that they could make their way to the reef together.

“Yet to come were Lasseter’s stranding in the desert after his camels bolted, carrying away his food and supplies and leaving him dependent on the Pitjantjatjara people to keep him alive. 

“In the early months of 1931 he was found dead in the Petermann Ranges south-west of Uluru, having apparently perished from starvation and blindness while trying to get back to civilisation. 

“The company had not only failed to act on his request to find Johanssen, but delayed too long in sending out a search party to find him.”

Dr Clark said that four years ago his family was presented with the discovery that the Johanssen from these long-forgotten events 85 years ago was actually his Swedish grandfather, Olof Emanuel Johanson.

“His involvement with Lasseter was completely news to us because my mother (born Alvhild Mathel Johanson) had lost track of him after her parents’ marriage broke up when she was only two.” 

The search to find just who exactly Olof was, what his connection was with Lasseter, and what became of him is explained in Dr Clark’s new book “Olof’s Suitcase: Lasseter’s Reef mystery solved”.

“Although there are still people today who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believe in or hope for the existence of a reef of gold, Olof’s story has been the one part of the Lasseter affair that has truly remained unresolved until this day,” Dr Clark said.

The book’s main title refers to the fact that it took a trip to Sweden last year by the author and one of his brothers to unearth the proof that their grandfather was the man that Lasseter had sought.

“While meeting relatives and descendants of the Johanson family in Sweden, we were given the suitcase that Olof took with him when he returned home shortly after the Second World War, along with a collection of photographs he carried with him that documented the 35 years he had spent in Australia.”

Among the photos were pictures of the Aborigines of the Petermann Ranges taken in 1928, the year before he began working in the gold mines of what is now Kalgoorlie-Boulder.                   

(“Olof’s Suitcase” is available online from Canberra publisher Echo Books, in hard cover, paperback and eBook versions).

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