Into the unknown : the tormented life and expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt / John Bailey.

Having read John Bailey's excellent Mr Stuart’s Track, a biography of explorer John McDouall Stuart, I was eager to read his latest book. Again he has chosen an Australian explorer, this time the enigmatic Ludwig Leichhardt and, again, he has done a masterful job.

The disappearance without trace of Leichhardt's 1848 expedition is one of the enduring mysteries of Australian history, and the author is clever in beginning the book with a brief account of that expedition. Read it and you will find it difficult not to carry on reading the whole book; such is the skill behind the kind of narrative history John Bailey writes.

Of course, the greatest event of Leichhardt's life was not that final ill-fated expedition of 1848, but his triumphant overland journey of1844-45. Making extensive use of diaries and published accounts, Bailey recreates all the struggles, setbacks, infighting and sheer exhausting hard work of that trip. The decision to quote Leichhardt extensively is a wise one, since Leichhardt himself is an observant and passionate writer. This is a full account of a life, not just the expeditions in Australia, and what emerges from the book is that the character of the man is just as great a mystery as his fate. Although highly intelligent, widely read and a skilled scientist, Leichhardt clearly had great difficulties being a leader of men on the three expeditions he led. So it is no surprise that Bailey focuses as much attention on the interpersonal problems that plagued the expeditions as he does on the physical challenges, such as heat, hunger and disease.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a clear picture of just how epic the challenges were for explorers of men of Leichhardt’s era. Seemingly simple setbacks such as horses or cattle wandering off during the night could become interminably long sagas as the expeditioners tracked their lost animals for days or even weeks, halting all progress on their journey, all the while consuming supplies and succumbing to ill health and sickness. I was almost nauseous when reading the detailed accounts of the failed second expedition's encounter with constant rain and sickness, to which all men on the journey succumbed at one time or another. The author surmises such sickness was caused by unsanitary slaughtering and cooking practices, as the following graphic passage illustrates -
"Leichhardt's party was camped on a patch of mud surrounded by the strewn bones and rotting flesh of slaughtered animals. Over time the carcasses mounted up into what Leichhardt described at Charleys Creek as a 'charnel house of killed goats and sheep'. Flies and maggots swarmed over strips of exposed meat. Dogs roamed the camp and nearby was a diarrhoea-ridden latrine. The entrails of sheep and goats, reserved for the dogs, were packed in sacks and stored next to meat for human consumption. At the call for supper men often walked directly from the toilet or from tending their horses and cattle without a thought to washing their hands. Preparing food over an open fire meant the meat was often undercooked. Flies were a constant accompaniment to any meal. In short, the camp was a perfect breeding environment for the salmonella bacteria."