On November 9, 1878, workers at the remote Nockatunga station watched as an unsteady rider stumbled in from the desert. Near death from thirst, the man fell down in front of them, barely alive. The workers recognised him as Lewis Thompson, the stockman they called "the piano tuner". He'd left there nine days earlier heading west with two other men, an Australian bushie called Andrew Hume, and an Irish soldier and VC winner no less, called Timothy O'Dea. The other two were still missing presumed dead in the relentless heat of a far western Queensland summer.
I've written about Andrew Hume before. Having read Darrell Lewis' Where is Dr Leichhardt about the search for the German explorer, I'd written Hume off as a conman who invented a story about a possible Leichhardt expedition survivor in order to get out of jail. But Hume did eventually go looking for Leichhardt and he died on that search. There's a more sympathetic account of his journey in Les Perrin's The Mystery of the Leichhardt Survivor.
Hume was taking a long shot to say the least. Ludwig Leichhardt and likely seven others went missing in 1848 somewhere in a massive region between western Queensland and the west coast. There was also evidence further north at Glenormiston though likely they died far into the Territory or even WA. Hume went to far south-west Queensland searching for survivors in 1874, 26 years later. Hume was joined on the search at Nockatunga Station (now Noccundra) by O'Hea and Thompson.
Perrin begins the story not at Nockatunga, but in Baradine, New South Wales where Hume was arrested in 1866. Hume was on a several-day bender and having ran out of money, launched a farcical armed raid on the pub, where he drunkenly told patrons he was the bushranger "The Black Prince". The shambles ended in his arrest and incarceration for ten years with hard labour. He was sent to Darlinghurst prison and then to Cockatoo Island before ending up at Parramatta jail in 1869. Here he read a report on a wild white man in western Queensland and revealed to authorities a story about his own travels in the early 1860s when he claimed to have reached the west coast and while far inland he met a white man living with an Aboriginal tribe. The man told Hume he was a survivor of an expedition party and it was this news Hume was bringing back when waylaid in Baradine. He claimed he didn't want to mention this after the arrest as people would think it a ploy to get released.
Officers at Parramatta prison were impressed by his story and got him to dictate a letter. The letter had two diagrams of marks he found on remote trees one saying "L C Nov 1847 Dig" and the other "L C Aug 1848 Rock". Hume said he placed papers in a saddle bag under one of the trees promising to bring them back at a later date. He said he was sure he could find them again. Though Hume did not divulge the name of the white man, his letter was sent at a time of intense interest in the unknown fate of Leichhardt. There were two searches near Thargomindah into reports of an old white man living further west. If Hume's story was true, it needed to be investigated. Many were sceptical. Hovenden Hely who travelled in the failed Leichhardt second expedition said Leichhardt had not even started his third and final expedition in 1847 and marked his trees L or LL but not LC.
Yet the Governor of NSW pardoned Hume after serving half his sentence and the government approved his travel and expenses into the interior. South Australia agreed to take him by ship to Darwin where he could then travel south-west. South Australia was building the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line and among those aboard was postmaster general Charles Todd who had responsibility for the line. Hume told him his story though Todd was unimpressed and believed him a fake. When the ship arrived at Roper River in March 1872, the captain decided to use the floods to take the ship upstream as far as possible as it would be closer to the line than Darwin. Hume disembarked but found his way forward blocked by those floods. He finally proceeded to the Line where he got a job while waiting for a horse. He ended up staying on the Line till its completion in August. He did not get a horse till December and then went missing for 12 months.
He arrived back at Roper in November 1873 and announced he'd found the white man who he identified as Classen, a German survivor from Leichhardt's party. He carried a leather satchel which he claimed had writings from Classen, Leichhardt's watch and other relics but he refused to show them to anyone. He wrote to Sydney documenting his finds and in December paid for a passage back to Brisbane. There he met Rev James Samuel Hassall who was Parramatta jail chaplain when Hume was there. Hume told Hassell he'd travelled west of Tennant Creek into the Davenport Ranges until he was 300 miles north west of the Line. There he met "Classen" now aged in his seventies who told him he had survived as a tribal doctor. Classen wrote his story down for Hume and showed him Leichhardt's remains in a coolamon tree. Less impressed was surveyor-general AC Gregory (who also searched for Leichhardt) who had difficulty recognising locations Hume said he went to. Although Todd and others pointed out date discrepancies in Hume's story, he was still eagerly expected when he finally arrived back in Sydney.
But when it came to the handover of the artifacts, there was a shock. Hume claimed the satchel had been cut open and the contents stolen. Nevertheless Hume stuck to his story giving a detailed description of Leichhardt watch and chain. He told authorities it would be difficult to remove Classen from the tribe and although letters to papers described Hume as an "impudent imposter" he maintained supporters such Eccleston Du Faur and John Dunmore Lang who were willing to privately finance another expedition. This time he would go overland, and be accompanied.
Experienced bushman Peter Lorimer initially signed up but insisted he carry the money, which Hume refused. Three replacements were found but Hume took to the drink in the early stages and all three resigned their commission. Fortunately Du Faur found an excellent replacement, Timothy O'Hea, a young Irishman who had been awarded a Victoria Cross in Canada in 1866. Ironically the Irishman won it for defending the Empire from fellow Irish Fenians who had invaded from the US and he was the only man to win a VC not in battle. He showed his valour putting out a fire on a munitions train, saving the lives of many passengers. After moving back to Ireland and then to New Zealand where he became a constable, O'Hea moved to Sydney in 1874. When Du Faur found out about his arrival, he offered him a spot on the expedition and O'Hea immediately accepted.
O'Hea found Hume at Murrurundi and the two men took an immediate liking to each other. O'Hea was interested in Hume's life and became a sobering influence. They crossed into Queensland at Mungindi and delayed there due to straying horses they recruited a third member, stockman and piano tuner, Lewis Thompson. Like O'Hea, Thompson served in the army, in India, and the other two were impressed by Thompson's horsemanship and determination.
The trio proceeded west to the Warrego River at Cunnamulla and arrived at Thargomindah station in October. While they were expected and welcomed at the station, the owner was away and the lack of his knowledge would prove crucial later on. Here was the last outpost of white Australia, the Bulloo Barracks, where Thargomindah township now stands. They arrived at Nockatunga Station on October 31 but Hume was determined to push on to the Cooper Creek before the wet season started.
It was difficult country. Charles Sturt was trapped for months in an exceptional dry year in his 1845 expedition and Burke and Wills died there 16 years later. Hume's plan was to head north-west from the Creek along the Diamantina and Georgina systems and then north of the Simpson Desert to the Telegraph Line. They rode out on November 1, heading south-west.
According to Thompson's account they followed the Wilson River to Noccundra Waterhole and they followed an indistinct track which they hoped would lead to the Cooper Creek. Most of the watercourses were dry, though they found water at Graham's Creek. Hume was sure they were just a day away from the Cooper, just 60 miles away and he brushed aside O'Hea's suggestion they fill all their water bags. At the end of the day their bags were drained but Hume again was confident the Cooper was just another day away. But at the end of that day, Hume was puzzled they still hadn't found it, and had no water for 30 hours.
The problem was that after following a north-south path for hundreds of kilometres the Cooper takes a right-angled turn west just west of Noccundra. Hume's limited maps did not show this diversion and with the station owner absent no one else had told them about it. It meant they were 30km south of the creek and travelling parallel to it in searing high temperatures. Midway through the next day Hume make the decision to turn back to Graham's Creek, though they took a south-westerly path in the hope of finding water. After three days without water O'Hea in particular was becoming despondent.
They continued a fourth day without water resting more frequently. Although Hume believed they weren't far from Graham's Creek, O'Hea could go no further and Hume instructed Thompson to go ahead. Thompson staggered on until he found a waterhole a day later, a place later called Thompson's Creek. His horse would go no further so he walked back to where he left the other two but they were gone without trace. He went back to the waterhole and saddled his horse before another vain search for his comrades. On returning to Thompson's Creek a third time he found five horses but no riders and three of them had their saddles and packs removed. Another horse carried flour but the bags had been torn to pieces and the flour scattered in the wind. Late that day, November 8, Thompson began the journey back to Noccundra.
The following day an unsteady rider was seen approaching Nockatunga homestead. It was Thompson and it was clear he'd suffered great hardship. He said they got lost in the desert and the other two were missing and dangerously weakened. After two days rest Thompson joined a search party with two station workers and a black tracker. They went first to Graham's Creek then Thompson's Creek and found the spare horses where Thompson left them. The tracker found packs that the horses had rolled off. They then reached the last camp where Thompson had left them. They found O'Hea's rifle and other possessions and worked out the pair had deliberately unbuckled the spare horses but bafflingly had not followed them to Thompson Creek in search of water (about 6km away), and instead gone in the opposite direction.
They found O'Hea's dead horse half eaten by wild dogs. The tracker followed Hume's horse's tracks and eventually found it, also dead. Nearby was Hume's belt and watch, then his rifle and his hat. But there was no sign of Hume, or O'Hea. Finally after a long search Thompson found Hume's body a half mile from the horse. He estimated Hume had been dead six days. O'Hea's body was never found. The following morning they returned to Nockatunga which they reached a day later. Bulloo Barracks sub-inspector Dunne was waiting and as was a JP who made out an inventory of the dead men's possessions. Dunne led another expedition to Thompson Creek where he examined Hume's body. They buried him there and had another unsuccessful hunt for O'Dea's remains.
Dunne sent a message to the magistrate in Charleville that Hume was found dead and O'Hea was also presumed dead. In a letter to Du Faur Thompson gave a similar message though he also supposed "he may have fell in with a party of blacks". But that was about as likely as "Classen" suffering the same fate. The Leichhardt expedition probably died far to the west, their remains forever hidden by the desert, just like O'Hea's