Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Queensland - Leichhardt and 45 million years of separation

Apologies to my regular readers, as I've had a flu these past two weeks and not had a chance to update this blog, or move on to a new country this month yet.  I still have a couple of posts to do before I can justify moving on from Queensland, so bear with me for another few days :-)

In my learning about Queensland, I've come across the 19th century explorer Ludwig Leichhardt.  Born in Prussia, a country that no longer exists, he made his way via Britain to Sydney of the 1840's and Australia, a country that barely existed in most people's minds at that time, large parts of the outback being un-charted and blanks on the map.  I've always been curious as to the motivation of the 19th century's great explorers.  I can understand the need to go where no man has ever gone before, but I still find it hard to imagine, in our globalised world of package holidays and itineraries, what it was like to head off into the unknown and beat your way across a hostile landscape, with an uncertain destination. 

The name Leichhardt is probably more familiar to Australians today, as the suburbs named after him, in Sydney and Ipswich (Queensland), but there was a time in the mid-19th century when his exploits caught the imagination of an emerging nation barely coming to terms with its physical geography.  For the first Europeans coming to Australia was like stepping into another world.  With mammals laying eggs and trees shedding their bark rather than their leaves, it must have seemed as though their whole world had, literally, been turned upside-down.

Australia has been separated from all other land-masses for no less than 45 million years, allowing its flora and fauna to develop in a completely unique way, unrelated to or influenced by the evolutionary changes that the rest of the world was experiencing.  Australia in the 19th century was quite possibly the closest a European explorer could come to seeing alien life forms!  From a geological point of view, the importance of soil in Australia shouldn't be underestimated.  The land in Australia is very, very old.  Whilst other continents have been undergoing geological processes that have renewed and re-fertilised their soils, Australia has been in, what is the equivalent of, a geological coma.  The earth there is incredibly fragile, leached of all goodness, the soil can literally be blown away in the wind. 

I guess for that reason, more than anywhere else on our planet, native Australians learned to live in a symbiotic relationship with the Earth, nurturing the fragile landscape that they inherited.  Native Australian culture respects the land in a way that the new European arrivals could barely comprehend.  What little I know about aboriginal culture, I'm impressed by this relationship with the Earth - it reminds me somewhat on the deep reverence native American peoples have for Mother Nature.  In stark contrast to other parts of the world, where mankind has tried (not entirely successfully) to master the environment and make it conform to the needs of the human population, I get the impression that human culture in Australia is defined by the landscape, rather than being part of a landscape defined by man. 

You can read all about Leichhardt's first (successful) expedition in his memoir, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a Distance of Upwards of 3000 Miles, During the Years 1844-1845.  Catchy title, eh?  Thanks to the Gutenburg project and an iPhone application called Wattpad, I was able to download Leichhardt's journal and dip into the enthralling world of a 19th-century adventurer! 

It's not the kind of book you would necessarily read from cover to cover (all 659 pages of it), but that's the joy of having so many obscure texts published free online.  I didn't have time to read the whole thing, but at least I could get a sense of what the journey was like, from an original source document.  His first journey wasn't particularly well-funded, although he had no shortage of men volunteering to accompany him on his adventure.  His companions included a man who was released from prison for the journey and an Aborigine called Harry Brown (I can see Michael Caine in the film version!).  Before they even started their journey they travelled from Sydney to Brisbane by boat, a journey that normally took three days but, because of inclement weather, took them almost a week. 

Leichhardt was a natural scientist by profession, with a keen interest in botany and his journal is a world of plants and flowers.  The Brigalow tree features highly in his descriptions of the landscape, as does the Bastard Box and a peculiar animal that he calls the rabbit-rat.  The name rabbit-rat makes me giggle a bit, it's obvious they couldn't make up their minds exactly which animal it was most similar to, so they settled for this double-barrelled moniker! 

The psychological strain of the journey begins to show after the first month or so and one of the expeditioners, Mr Gilbert, has some kind of falling out with the servant boy Charley.  Charley is given the option of leaving the expedition and making his way back to Brisbane, but without any supplies, one month into their journey - understandably he apologises to Mr Gilbert and the voyage continues.

For better or worse, Leichhardt's first voyage across the northern part of Australia, setting out from the Darling Downs in what is now Queensland, was a great success, securing further support for repeat voyages, including his third voyage when he and his entire party mysteriously 'disappeared', melting into the landscape, as though they had never really made an impression on it in the first place.

Image credits:

The image of Ludwig Leichhardt was painted by Friedrich August Schmalfuß and is used as the main image for the Wikipedia article on the great explorer.  The copyright for this image has expired and it is deemed to be 'in the public domain' 
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