ACT News

Save
Print

Lasseter's Reef solved? Canberra historian Chris Clark's new book unearths home truths

Chris Clark's Olaf's Suitcase: Lasseter's Reef Mystery Solved chronicles an amazing journey and is gold for adventurers.

Lasseter's Reef is one of Australia's most alluring legends – a vast gold-bearing deposit purported to have been discovered around the turn of the 19th century (some reports suggest 1897 and others, 1911) by Harold Lasseter on the western edge of the MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia.

After years of trying, in 1930 Lasseter finally raised sufficient funds to mount an expedition to re-locate his "lost" reef. However soon after setting off in search of his holy grail, several of his party labelled him a charlatan, and following a number of disagreements (and the odd fight to boot), Lasseter was eventually left to his own devices. He was last seen alive trudging off into the desert with two camels, and in early 1931, his emaciated remains and personal effects were found in a remote desert cave. There was no indication he had re-located the reef and no map was ever found. 

While most of us have heard of the fabled reef and some of us have possibly even dreamed of one day finding it (although some say it's impossible to find something that doesn't exist), one man particularly familiar with the story, or at least until recently he thought he was, is renowned Canberra historian Chris Clark. "I'd researched Lasseter's attempt to 're-find' the reef while writing a book back in the early 1990s on the history of the RAAF between the world wars," recalls Clark, who is also an accomplished author.

So imagine Clark's surprise when in 2010, out of the blue he was contacted by filmmaker Luke Walker alerting him to a possible link between his late Swedish grandfather Olof Johanson (who at the time he knew little about) and Lasseter's Reef. 

"Luke was researching for a documentary Lasseter's Bones (released in 2013) and wanted to talk about two pieces of correspondence he had uncovered between Lasseter and my grandfather," recalls Clark.

"One was a telegram sent on 16 June 1930 by Olof on receiving a letter from Lasseter probably in reply to a letter Olof had sent stating that he also knew the location of the reef, and the other was a letter in July 1930 in which it appears that Olof was responding to an approach by Lasseter to assist him in the capacity as a guide in trying to 'relocate' the lost reef," explains Clark.

Advertisement

It was a revelation that propelled Clark on a journey of discovery, an odyssey of epic proportions which he has carefully chronicled in his newbook: Olaf's Suitcase: Lasseter's Reef Mystery Solved (Echo Books). Did his grandfather really know the location of Lasseter's lost reef, and how? And, what became of the offer to join Lasseter on his ill-fated 1930 expedition?

The gold trail eventually led Clark to return to Sweden last year with his brother to visit his grandfather's grave and meet surviving members of his family. While there, they were given the very suitcase that Olof carried with him when he returned home from Australia 65 years earlier. Inside the suitcase were a unique collection of photographs which recorded the 35 years Olof spent in Australia. It was a critical piece of the puzzle.

"The photographs showed conclusively that he must have been out in Central Australia in 1928-29," writes Clark. The photographic evidence was supported by the timely release of personal papers of Neville Wolff with whom Olof worked with in Kalgoorlie in 1929-30. "Neville claimed Olof told him that he (Olof) had been out dingo-hunting in Central Australia when he accidentally stumbled on a stone reef upon which an old 'shallow shaft' had been sunk," explains Clark, who adds, "it was only when he read that Lasseter's expedition was being assembled at Sydney that Olof connected the dots, and began to think that he might have stumbled on the diggings that Lasseter claimed to have made when Lasseter first discovered the reef."

So what about Lasseter's request to join him on his 1930 quest to re-locate the lost reef? Well, it turns out that Olof's letter responding to Lasseter's offer was sent in late July just after Lasseter had already departed on his ill-fated expedition. Instead, Olof joined a different (failed) search with a rival consortium.

Olof lived out the rest of his time in Australia in relative obscurity (partly due to a widespread misconception that he had been speared to death by an Aboriginal in 1931) and eventually returned to Sweden after World War II where he died in 1955, no doubt completely oblivious to the fact his years spent in Australia (and tattered suitcase) would one day become the motivation for a book.

And as for the suitcase? It currently sits in all its glory on a day-bed in the guest room of Clark's Canberra apartment, but after this Friday's book launch (where it will almost certainly feature)  Clark plans "to mount it on fixed display in the entry space into the apartment".

Olof's Suitcase: Lasseter's Reef Mystery Solved is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in Australia's most infamous gold reef. It also demonstrates that treasure isn't always hidden underground in rocks, but it can also be discovered by delving into your own family history. You never know what you might find.

The book: Olof's Suitcase: Lasseter's Reef Mystery Solved will be launched on March 27. It is published by EchoBooks (echobooks.com.au) and is available in both soft ($29.95) and hardcover ($39.95) and also as an ebook ($14.95).

Gold hoax on Mount Ainslie

For many years, I've heard tales that Harold Lasseter, of the "lost" reef fame, actually bunked down for a number of years in Canberra.  In researching for Olof's Suitcase, Chris Clark not only confirmed that Lasseter lived in Canberra, but he also unearthed reports of a gold hoax on Mount Ainslie thought to have been orchestrated by Lasseter. 

 "In either 1925 or early 1926 Lasseter began working at Canberra as a carpenter on the national capital site," explains Clark, who adds, "he initially lived unaccompanied in the Northbourne Camp but towards the end of 1926, his wife and children joined him and he constructed a 'humpy' in the area below Russell Hill, near present day Campbell Shops." 

According to Clark, "while in Canberra Lasseter regaled his workmates and neighbours with tales of the reef he discovered in central Australia – even showing a map to some of his colleagues in support of his claims." During the period of roughly two years that Lasseter lived in Canberra, he seems to have contributed to the community in various ways. "He wrote articles for the Canberra Community News under the pen-name of  'The Gleaner'," reveals Clark, who adds, "he also attempted to get permission to run open air picture shows (for his own financial benefit) in several of the workmen's camps that otherwise had no recreational outlets." 

However, Lasseter's time in the national capital will probably best be remembered for a hoax he perpetrated on workers living in the Mount Ainslie Camp after he "discovered" gold on a creekline at the base of Mount Ainslie. 

The Canberra Times of June 3, 1927, reports that "the original discoverer appears to have confided his find to a few mates, each of whom kept it a very close secret," and that "discreetly basins and frying pans were purchased, and commenced a number of stealthy exits under the cover of night to take bags of wash from the bed of the watercourse [on Mount Ainslie]". The bags of gold dust were hidden until "opportunity came for panning off in a crude fashion by oil or candle light." 

The article then explains that the 'gold' turned out to be far from valuable and was merely brass filings planted by a cruel hoaxster. "The identity of the prankster was not stated by the newspaper, but later local historians have pointed the finger at Lasseter," explains Clark.

When the workers discovered it was a hoax, as you'd expect, they weren't too impressed.  The article further reports, "and now one member of Mount Ainslie camp is wondering how he is going to explain it to his wife, to whom he confidingly sent a small bottle of 'gold' dust for fear it might be stolen in the camp … according to latest reports they are wild."

Mount Ainslie has a number of small watercourses, most of which only flow after considerable rain. I wonder which one it was.

Simulacra corner

While most of the simulacra images to grace these pages are of the permanent kind (such asrocks and mountain shapes) Kasey Tomkins of Kingston has snapped a photo of a temporary form of the phenomena created by a shadow. Kasey reports she only noticed "the mysterious 'Shadow Man' lurking on the tree trunk" while flicking through photos a couple of days after taking them during a late afternoon walk on Red Hill. "I didn't see anyone else on the walk so it must have been caused by the sun hitting the branches of a nearby tree in such a way that it cast a shadow on the tree trunk which resembled human form," explains Kasey. Spooky.

Where in Canberra?  

Clue: Read all about it.

Degree of difficulty: Easy (the last easy one for a while)

Last week: Congratulations to Matt Nagaiya of Chisholm who correctly identified last week's photo (inset) as the walking track which leads from the back of the Australian War Memorial up to the summit of Mount Ainslie.  "It's a great walk and the view from up there is magnificent," reports Matt who just beat Jill Schaefer of Giralang and Jenny McLeod of Weston to the prize. Jenny wonders "how did you get a photo without people in it", adding that every time she makes the trek it's packed "with walkers, dogs and joggers". 

Although Jenny McLeod wasn't quick enough off the mark to win the prize, Cathie Trotter of Ainslie nailed the clue of "Kokoda", explaining that "the summit track has a number of plaques commemorating the battles fought in World War II on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea".

Meanwhile, bragging rights go to 10-year-old Finn Zentelis-Wilde who sometimes runs up the 840-metre peak with his dad, boasting, "I always have to wait for him at the top". Finn, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about your dad just being a slow runner – maybe he is secretly stopping at the bottom to pocket some of the old brass filings left behind by Lasseter?!

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am today with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.