|"Earle died shortly afterwards from a malignant disease".|
|Basedow, H. Foreword to Lasseter's Last Ride. viii.|
Antecedents unknown but apparently a South Australian prospector active during the 1890's. Earle is alleged to have found an enormous gold deposit in the Tomkinson Ranges in 1895 and many have thought that Lasseter's story of his vast gold reef in central Australia has foundations in Earle's 'Cave of Gold'. There is a possible connection that's worth investigating.
The first official expedition to 'unofficially' investigate Earle's claim was the South Australian Government's North West Expedition of 1903, in charge of the redoubtable L. A. Wells with a young Herbert Basedow as the expeditions scientist. Basedow, writes in his journal from Mount Davies on the 29th May 1903, "Three of us leave early to prospect in the promised El Dorado, north of Mount Davies.~ Skirting the foot of Mount Davies, an extensive siliceous deposit occurs which was reported by Earle to be richly auriferous, it is known as the Murru Yilyah outcrop". The well equipped and very experienced South Australian expedition spent ten days thoroughly prospecting and testing far and wide in the vicinity of Mount Davies and the outcrop, not a trace of gold was reported.
28 years later, his formidable reputation now well established, Basedow wrote the foreword to 'Lasseter's Last Ride'. In his introduction to the best seller, Basedow mentions that, "I remember seeing years ago a sample of bottle-green quartz, richly studded with gold, which a prospector named Earle claimed to have found in the identical locality and had submitted to the Geological Department for advice. Earle died shortly afterwards from a malignant disease". Very similar to Lasseter's story in submitting samples for assay and having a partner, in this case Harding, dying before the bonanza can be relocated.
The only creditable sources for information on Earle are Michael Terry and Reg Sprigg, of the two, Sprigg's sources are at the best third hand but reasonably concluded from other evidence and first hand experience in the area. Terry made a point of piecing together the story of 'Earle's Find', "till at length one may, with a measure of confidence, tell the tale true to fact". Terry notes that some thirty six years after Earle's discovery, "out of a few bald facts there has grown a pretty romantic story worthy of the pages of a fairy tale".
According to Terry the story began in 1895 when an Adelaide solicitor by the name of W. F. Stock was ordered by his doctor to spend some time in the drier parts of Australia for the sake of his health. Stock thought a prospecting trip to the Musgrave Ranges in the State's far north west would be suitably dry, certainly adventurous and possibly profitable. Stock arranged for an experienced bushman by the name of Lamb to act as guide to the small expedition and sent him ahead to Oodnadatta to arrange camel hire and organise equipment and supplies. When Stock arrived in Oodnadatta he was accompanied by Earle. Terry gives the impression that Earle's arrival was unexpected by Lamb. Nevertheless it was agreed that Lamb was leader of the expedition.
Provision was made to include Earle and the three man expedition set off for parts north west. They travelled as far as Indulkana where Stock became ill. Earle remained at Indulkana while Lamb made a difficult return to Oodnadatta with the near invalid Stock, who became so seriously ill 80 miles out of town that, "he preferred to die rather than travel further". The expedition's Aboriginal employee summoned help and after several days and with police assistance Lamb was able to move the patient to Oodnadatta and then to Marree where relatives took charge.
Lamb, (who was living in Adelaide at the time of Terry's investigations), returned to Indulkana then travelled with Earle through the Musgrave and Tomkinson Ranges, "Here they had a misunderstanding", (Sprigg's source has Earle striking Lamb with a stock whip) and parted company. Earle returned to civilisation while Lamb prospected and explored to the Rawlinson Ranges, when he returned from far places "he was amazed to hear that his mate had found a cave studded with copper and gold, supposedly close to Mount Davies".
It seems this wild rumour began on the train from Oodnadatta to Adelaide when Earle passed a bottle of Western Australian gold nuggets around fellow passengers, as was common enough practice amongst prospectors of the day, Earle carried the specimens to show the Aboriginals, "in the belief that they might conduct him to more". He took pains to make it clear to all, that the gold did not come from the area recently prospected although the country was sufficiently attractive to warrant further work. When Earle arrived in Adelaide he found it was, "common talk that he had prospected rich gold in the Tomkinson Ranges".
As is usual in such circumstances people refused to believe the gold find was an unfounded rumour and Terry infers that Earle's denials could have been a little more vigorous, but the end result was the formation of a syndicate to examine Earle's find in detail. Terry adds something to Basedow's crass observation that, "Earle died shortly afterwards from a malignant disease", (what an odd thing to write?). Terry notes that Earle was suffering severe eye cancer at the time and his prospecting and bush days were over. In the story so far the affinities with Lasseter and Harding are evident
Earle's rumoured find was not followed up until 1900 when a party consisting of Messrs. Albert, Cockram Senior and Junior, Warman and Undler, the Afghan camel man, left Oodnadatta for the north west ranges, "It was said they were supplied with Earle's plan indicating a place 2½ miles north of Mount Davis". Terry could not determine if Earle's plan or map actually existed and if it did whether it marked the location of his cave of gold or a likely place to prospect. On the outward journey the party was attacked by Aboriginals at Hector's Pass in the Mann Ranges, one of the Cockrams and the Afghan were speared, the camelman dying of his wounds, although Cockram, severely wounded in the groin, had almost recovered by the time the party returned to Oodnadatta.
In 1901, with renewed enthusiasm and undaunted by the recent attacks, the Cockrams, Ted and Arthur Warman and a camelman by the name of Abdur Ackman set off for Mount Davies. Again tragedy stuck the party at Hector's Pass; possibly as an act of revenge for the recent death of his countryman, Ackman attacked Ted Warman with a tomahawk and shot him several times before hiding in nearby rocks. The rest of the party hearing the shots rushed to the scene of the murder and were met with a fusillade from Ackman, for several hours it was a stand off until the impatient prospectors charged the camp to find the murderer gone and, "their mates remains horrible to look upon". The camelman had disappeared with a .44 calibre repeating rifle, a hundred rounds of ammunition and a few supplies.
There was a macabre finish to this tragedy, the shocked prospectors buried Warman and returned to Oodnadatta. That night Ackman returned to the scene and dug up Warman to recover the blanket he was buried in, the nights being cold. Several days later a couple of fellow prospectors by the name of Maurice and W. R. Murray arrived at the deserted camp and made the gruesome discovery, they reburied Ted Warman and moved on to the rail line, not far behind the Cockram party. The Cockrams found Ackman's tracks near Indulkana, 300 miles from the scene of the crime and concluded that he had survived on the game shot along the way. Somewhere along the track from Indulkana to Warrina, Ackman died of thirst, "and so saved himself a hanging".
These tragedies and the slowly dawning realisation that the expeditions were formed on unsubstantiated rumours, cooled enthusiasm for prospecting in the far north west for many years. The Murru Yilyah outcrop in which Earle's Cave of Gold was rumoured to be located had been extensively prospected without result by the time Michael Terry arrived 1930. He described the formation as, "a huge chalcedonised sandstone outcrop without any interesting mineral content observable to us, save a few veins of material like bottle-green quartz, subsequently assayed as zaratite, or 6 percent nickel ore". That bottle-green quartz must be widespread through Lasseter Country and literature. "Anyway where Mount Davis stands are no known caves large enough to hide a wallaby; it is apparently unmineralised country, let alone of auriferous nature".
The world renown geologist and modern day explorer Dr. Reg Sprigg investigated Earle's 'Cave of Gold', in the record and on the ground and has come to similar conclusions as Terry, perhaps with more emphasis on Earle's shady character. Sprigg with the benefit of history and others hindsight...and considerable field experience, succinctly concluded that, "Lasseter was a Johnny-come-lately explorer and dubious gold prospector. He was a dreamer and obvious liar. Famous writer-chronicler of the 1930s, Ion Idriess was there to cash in on the Lasseter dream and turn it into a legend. Together the two inscribed the myth deep into the Australian psyche. Lasseter's Last Ride was the biased story of one man's ride into immortality. It was a tale that will never die, whatever and how much the damning evidence to the contrary".
Reg Sprigg and his powerful mining associates dug and drilled the north west ranges for several years with special attention to Murru Yilyah outcrop and the Mount Davies area, widespread but uneconomic nickel deposits were discovered. Sprigg writes with fond memories of the twenty years prospecting and testing the ranges, he describes the vivid impressions of his first visit to the region and the discovery of Michael Terry's vehicle tracks and his first view of the "great line of rusty, gossan-like green and white jasper-studded outcrops extended west along the base of Mount Davies, from Gosse's Pile, for many miles into Western Australia.~ The copious white chalcedony veins, the iron colorations, the caves, the gem sands nearby, the 'reef's' enormous length, and a handy claypan (suitable for landing a light aircraft) also shown on Giles 1873 maps were all there to complete the Lasseter descriptions".
It would be difficult to disagree with Sprigg's conclusions, "That Basedow in his 1903 report, almost certainly fired Lasseter's imagination still further with his report of 'gem sands' (c.f. Lasseter's 'rubies'), in creek sands out of the Tomkinson Ranges", although I would suggest that it was Idriess's imagination fired by Basedow's journal. In Sprigg's 'humble opinion' Lasseter's Reef was Earle's Cave of Gold and Basedow's Murru Yilyah outcrop. By 1930 the Musgrave, Mann and Tomkinson Ranges had been thoroughly prospected for nil result. There being no caves of gold in the region, the rumour with variations, simply moved north a hundred miles or so to the next least known part of Australia, the Petermann and Rawlinson Ranges. And the hopeless search or clever fraud continued in a new but descriptively and historically similar location.
I suppose the Tomkinson, Musgrave and Mann Ranges should be included in Lasseter Country, the starkly beautiful ranges along the South Australian Northern Territory border may well be the location of El-Dorado in Lasseter's and Idriess's imaginations, where the persistent rumours of gold in Central Australia began; instigated by Earle, given substance by Basedow, made fact by Idriess and history by Lasseter. I can only agree with Sprigg and Terry, Lasseter's Reef is a concoction of Earle, Basedow, Idriess and Giles.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006