Explorers need two skills in spades: the ability to lead and the ability to navigate. If you don’t know where you are, where you are going and can’t get others to follow you, things can get mighty unwholesome.
Most explorers have or take the trouble to acquire these skills. But not all of them. Ludwig Leichhardt, the first European to cross northern Australia, linking the East coast to the North, a spectacularly ambitious and successful expedition, was neither any good at knowing where he was nor much use at leading.
Some of his calculations put his estimated position in the Coral Sea they were so inaccurate. When he left the Burdekin river he went completely off course. He had two front teeth knocked out by an aboriginal guide- a friendly guide not an antagonistic one. He failed to ration his supplies and allowed half of them to be gobbled up in the first 700km of a 4800 km journey. From then on they lived precariously off the land.
Leichhardt, a Prussian of slender means, a former tutor of the children of the rich, was not very likeable, by all accounts. But he arrived in Australia aged 30 in 1843 determined to explore the interior. He got lucky when the British asked that someone try to link up what would become Brisbane with Port Essington in the north west.
Was luck, then, the lesson we can draw from Leichhardt? (His luck ran out in 1848 when he disappeared in the interior of Australia). Or is it simply being in the right time and the right place (even if later you can’t exactly say where that place is)? Leichhardt was short sighted, temperamental, not physically impressive, incompetent and yet he made a truly great journey. Personally I think he stands as a necessary antidote to the ambitious hordes tugging their sledges to both poles and their rucksacks up Mt Everest. Exploration isn’t primarily about physical toughness, it’s about mental toughness allied with supreme optimism. Leichhardt really believed. No one else did which was why the journey hadn’t been made before. Nowadays such self belief is bolstered by sat phones, GPS, EPIRBs, air rescue. Journeys made in the old way look tame now, just as walking a six inch plank is easy when it’s on the ground. Try doing it when it is raised a few hundred feet…
Sheer unadulterated optimism, hope, belief that it can be done, that a way will be found: that’s the lesson of Ludwig Leichhardt.