|145. LAKE CHRISTOPHER.|
|"I had to go right out to Lake Christopher ~ in order to get my bearings".|
|Lasseter's Diary 80.|
Sun and Sand, Michael Terry. The photograph was taken by Terry at Lake Christopher on 2/11/32, about two years after Lasseter allegedly camped nearby, taking bearings to his reef while waiting for Johanson. The pole marking the message would have been in the bottom right corner of the photo. Ben Nicker on the right, Stan O'Grady holding the shovel and Lockey and Jack to the left. Note the old camel track running diagonally across the photo immediately behind O'Grady.
Lake Christopher is located at the western extremity of the Rawlinson Range in Western Australia. It is not a glaring white salt pan, but as Coote found in 1932, "the surface is covered in salt bush and young mulga and from the air it is just possible to pick up the littoral of the lake". Michael Terry thought this significant location in Lasseter's travels, "more truly a withered old swamp than the dry lake suggested by it's name", and recent travellers have reported lush herbage with grazing camels, emu and bustard and wildflowers abundant. Apparently not an unreasonable place to wait for another party - at the right time of the year.
Sometime during November or early December 1930 Lasseter is supposed to have waited at this lake for his mysterious co conspirator, Johanson. But Lasseter's 'Bush Mate' from Boulder City failed to keep the rendezvous, common history has it that Johanson and his mate were speared by blacks somewhere in the Rawlinsons. Lasseter not knowing this, waited a week or so in the vicinity then safely returned over his eastern tracks through the Rawlinson and Petermann Ranges, (the same ranges where his mates had been recently killed) and came to grief in late December when his camels bolted somewhere near Mount Curdie...so the usual story has it.
The Johanson myth has been nicely settled by Terry and the West Australian Police and has been dealt with elsewhere. What is not certain is Lasseter's presence at Lake Christopher in the first instance. On 2/11/32 Michael Terry and his mates, with the guidance of local Aboriginals discovered Lasseter sign and campfires at the lake and thoroughly investigated the vicinity for any clues to Lasseter's movements, two years earlier.
The first sign was a message scratched into the lake bed, clearly showing the words, 'DIG UNDER', with a third word partially obscured by numerous Aboriginal tracks. After careful study of the ground Ben Nicker decided the missing word was 'FIRE' but may be 'POLE'. "That pole's interesting - what stunts he (Lasseter) came at to catch somebody's eye" remarked Stan O'Grady. The men of the Endeavor Expedition then set about reconstructing the scene, "Where it had fallen down, Ben held the long stick upright, whilst Lockey and Jack replaced three short forks as they had been in support". The scuffed letters in the message were retraced, probably with the edge of the shovel held by O'Grady in the photograph.
The men took the obvious action and unlimbered tools, a nearby campfire and the base of the pole were excavated, "Well we delved deep holes at each of these places without any reward at all". Hindsight suggests there was nothing to find. Nevertheless, Terry has satisfactorily settled any rumours that he failed to dig under the pole, thus missing a vital Lasseter clue.
The following day Terry was shown another camp site north of the 'pole and message' sign, here he found a leaf bed and campfire and "dug all over the place ~ everywhere, without success", but he did find evidence of a tin, (perhaps one of Lasseter's numerous OXO tins) having been nailed to a tree with a piece of cloth lying nearby. Naturally the tin had been 'collected' by the Aboriginals, the common metal far more valuable to them than its weight in Lasseter's gold. Any message in the tin had long disappeared.
There can be no doubt about the detail of Terry's search, as Ben Nicker commented, "It 'ud be first rate to get something genuine from Lasseter. I'll bet he couldn't have written all the notes they said he did". The men found no further evidence of any Lasseter travels west of Lake Christopher and continued their explorations to the Warburton Ranges where they met Coote on his second search for the fictitious Reef.
According to Coote, Lasseter first mentioned Lake Christopher at Illbilla on 3/9/30, shortly after returning from his flight to the south west with Pat Hall in the Golden Quest II, Coote sensed the open scepticism of Blakeley and the men and pressed Lasseter for some 'hard evidence' to prove the existence of the reef or he may have to return to Alice Springs to face fraud charges. Apparently the threat loosened Lasseter's tongue and he related the thoroughly confusing, perhaps deliberately so, set of directions using Lake Christopher as a 'radial point'. This 'hard evidence' satisfied Coote.
Of course it should be kept in mind, that what Lasseter told Coote and what Coote recorded in 'Hell's Airport' could be quite different things. Coote knew he had a looming problem with several dissatisfied shareholders who had put a lot of hard earned money into the company on his recommendation, they wanted the gold and no more of Lasseter's excuses. For the time being any 'evidence' from Lasseter would do, even the impossible 'Lake Christopher as a radial point' yarn. Coote obviously failed to appreciate the implications for his own reputation when he put pen to paper regarding Lasseter's directions from Lake Christopher.
How did Lasseter know that the landmark he is supposed to have sighted from the Golden Quest II was Lake Christopher when several months earlier he had complained to Gepp about the difficulties of sighting landmarks from the air. Unsighted by Lasseter, this ephemeral swamp with the barely defined shoreline suddenly became his radial point, a landmark he would have had no hope of distinguishing from the ground in 1897, if he were there of course. Marvellous what an aircraft and a copy of Giles 1874 map can do for a legend. And given that, what on earth is the expedition doing on the northern side of the Amadeus basin?. Coote shows his duplicity here and withholds Lasseter's information from Blakeley who would have surely throttled Lasseter, if he ever became aware that Lake Christopher was the landmark with the radial points to the reef.
Apparently Coote kept Lasseter's revelation to himself for the next two months until Paul Johns returned to Alice Springs on 12/11/30 with an improbable story of misadventure in the Petermann Ranges and a letter from Lasseter detailing his future plans, apparently more or less confirming what Coote had been told a couple of months earlier. Coote did not get another chance to search for Lasseter as the Company had sacked him for incompetence and his own safety. The search was then handed over to Phillip Taylor with Paul Johns assistance and eleven camels, guided by Lasseter's letter. After a few mishaps involving the forced landing of Pittendrigh and Hamre and the subsequent recovery of the Golden Quest II, Taylor finally commenced the search proper from Illbilla on 9/2/31, nearly five months after Lasseter and Johns departed the waterhole in September the previous year.
Taylor abandoned the search two days later when he fell seriously ill and was forced to return to Hermannsburg where he immediately commissioned Bob Buck to continue the search for the missing prospector. Taylor gave Buck a paraphrased copy of Lasseter's letter which contained specific details of the search to be carried out through the Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges to Lake Christopher. "At this lake look either in the centre one of three fires which are reported to be kept burning there. Or look for a hill named Centre Mount Fire, situated on the Lake: should you discover nothing spend a reasonable amount of time searching the neighbourhood for tracks etc. and should you be unsuccessful return without delay, but make quite sure that Lasseter is not about before you leave".
It seems that 'notable Centralian Bushman' did not search the vicinity of Lake Christopher as he failed to observe and report on the very obvious signs left by Lasseter that Terry discovered the following year. The campfires and the base of the marker pole were undisturbed by digging as Buck would surely have done had he investigated these clues to Lasseter's movements. It may be that Buck discovered Lasseter's body in the early stages of the search thus eliminating the need to search further west to Lake Christopher. But then Buck also failed to find the very prominent cave with the clearly blazed tree where Lasseter camped for several weeks or the pegged claims that Lasseter scattered about the ranges or a number of other marked trees discovered by later travellers. These significant clues, (along with that 'diary') only came to light during the second C.A.G.E. Expedition...under the leadership of Bob Buck.
There may be some truth in the observations of a number of genuine Central Australian bushman who thought that Buck was just capable of blundering about his own horse paddock with the aid of a compass and didn't have the ability to track a polar bear in a snowfield...most of these 'expert' bushman are useless without their Aboriginal guides and trackers. Also bear in mind that it was Buck who loudly proclaimed his willingness to lead any number of expeditions west in the search for gold and lost prospectors, as long as he was paid for the effort. He wouldn't be the first to leave false clues in order to prolong employment and maintain a continuing profile in a lost cause. The thought has crossed a few minds other than Sullivan's and apparently Ben Nicker was thinking on the same lines when he wondered on the number of notes Lasseter left buried under camp fires.
Ernest Giles was the first European to sight and name Lake Christopher and with his doomed companion, Gibson, crossed the lake on 21/4/1874. Giles commented on the poorly defined shore of the lake and the nature of the widespread vegetation on the lake bed and significantly, the following, "Water there was none, and if Noah's deluge visited this place it could be conveniently stowed away, and put out of sight in a quarter of an hour" with long winded reference to the extremely porous nature of the limestone in the vicinity. Consider the following from page 86 of Lasseter's Diary, "the waters get away so fast that 3 inches which fell in 20 minutes at Lake Christopher at 3.30 to 3.50 PM (date inconveniently destroyed) which I measured in a 6 quart billy set on top of an 8 gallon drum was all gone in an hour". It is possible that Coote, Buck and Idriess had far more involvement with Lake Christopher than Lasseter ever did.
And a closing thought; why would that expert navigator Lasseter, "I hold a Diploma in Survey", choose a flat lake bed with a limited horizon from which to take his bearings, when a few short miles to the east were any number high and prominent landmarks that would give him an expansive view to the west, north and south and certain bearings to other landmarks as a cross reference to his reef??. And Coote was the first to hear Lasseter's story at Illbilla and the first to record the details of Lasseter's letter delivered by Paul Johns and apparently passed onto Bob Buck.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006