Men infected with gold-fever find it hard to resist any challenge that involves the golden rock. In Western Australia, one of the biggest challenges is to find Lasseter's legendary reef.
The story of the reef became widely known in Australia in 1930. Lasseter persuaded enough men to go out and search for a reef of gold he claimed he found when he was only 17 years old. The story he told his prospective backers was that sometime around 1900 he reached Alice Springs after an unsuccessful trip from Queensland. He had gone to the MacDonnell Ranges in search of a ruby field and decided to cut across the centre of Australia until he reached Carnarvon on the west coast. It was on this journey that he claimed to have found a rich gold-bearing reef some 16 kilometres long and 2.5 to 3.5 metres wide.
Three years later he took a surveyor, Mr Harding, back to the reef where they carried out extensive sampling. They deduced the reef was about 950 to 1100 kilometres from Carnarvon. The two men tried to get financial support to work the isolated reef but were unable to do so. Harding later died and it was not until the Depression years, when the price of gold soared, that interest was rekindled in Lasseter's story.
A group of men formed the Central Australian Gold Exploration Co. Ltd, to finance an expedition to look for the rich reef. The 1930 search, guided by Lasseter, was unsuccessful and the second attempt ended with Lasseter's death.
Since that time many expeditions of varying sizes have searched for the fabled reef. Some set out from the Eastern States, others started from Western Australia. One man, Harry M Domeyer of Kalgoorlie, left a detailed record of one such search, his third in two years. He began his diary by saying:
“This is a detailed account of my third trip to Central Australia in search of Lasseter's reef. The Endeavour Mining Company wired me to form a party and go out as far as Giles' Ranges on a six-month trip. I have been working in the mine in Kalgoorlie for six months so will take a few days to harden up. I can pick up camels and gear, also one man at Thatchers Soak, 100 miles out of Laverton. I have got to get two more men to make a party of four. I won't be taking any natives with me this time as they are too much worry. I have already been out in that country for twelve months, once under the leadership of L. A. Wells for six months, then I led the party for a further six months. I hope we can get some thunderstorms out there otherwise the water will be a problem. We never found any gold in our previous trips.”
He decided to buy the necessary provisions at Laverton, load them at Thatchers Soak, and leave for the Warburton Range. He planned to then go to the Rawlinson Range and make a thorough search in a wide arc in the area around Lake Christopher, where Lasseter 's reef was supposed to be. His party would then travel south to the Cavenagh Range, look around the country between there and the Livesey Range. He would then finally head back to Laverton.
Harry Domeyer and Joe Solomon, a sixty-year-old veteran prospector who signed on for the trip, left Kalgoorlie early in October on the first leg of their journey from Laverton after having a 'few farewell sherbets' with their mates.
While in Laverton buying supplies, they signed on another member. He was a twenty-one-year-old named Bill Marshall.
They were told that others were already out looking for the fabulous reef. Lugge and party were heading for the Livesey Range on a three-month trip. Talbot and Stucky 's party had set out two or three weeks before and Michael Terry and his expedition were also ahead.
When Domeyer and his men were a few days out, they passed Talbot and Stucky coming back. They were forced to return as there was 'no water anywhere out that way'. They advised Domeyer not to go on, but he claimed to know of two 'big waters' in the 400 kilometres between there and the Warburton Range.
At Thatchers Soak the men met the last member of the party, Tom Kelly. They loaded and roped their provisions on six of the eight pack camels. The other two camels were for carrying their precious water supply.
On 20 October the four men mounted their riding camels and the expedition set off on a recently surveyed line towards the Warburton Range. They were pleasantly surprised to find that heavy summer thunderstorms had filled gnamma holes. However, between the Warburton and Rawlinson ranges the country was much drier and onwards from there the camels were often described as 'very dry'.
On this part of the journey, Domeyer said that the sandhills were getting bigger and more frequent. The phrase 'as hot as hell with the lid off' recurred often in his diary for the next three months. On 1 January 1933, part of his entry read: 'Well here it is, the New Year and old Nick with his pitchfork. I knew he would be along as it is as hot as hell'.
Before this, on 14 November, the explorers came across a bloodwood tree marked with the inscription, 'Lasseter.2/12/30'. The tree was a few kilometres away from the Rawlinson ranges. Under this carving, Stan O'Grady, Michael Terry, and Ben de Nicker had also cut their initials with the date 3/11/32 with an arrow pointing towards the Petermann Ranges. This meant that Terry and party were eleven days ahead of them.
The next day, Domeyer and his party reached Weld Water and prospected extensively in that area for a few days. Domeyer described the granite and sandstone country as 'a proper no-man's-land'. The four men examined foothills and gullies, loamed waterways, and dollied stones from anything that looked like a lode or a reef-without finding so much as a trace of gold. Even when they were close to Lake Christopher, Domeyer wrote, 'We are supposed to be in the vicinity of Lasseter's lost reef but it don't look like gold country here'.
There was little trouble from Aborigines during the expedition, but one man was always left to guard the camp if their presence were suspected in the area. Even so, Aborigines managed to take the hobbles off some of the camels. On 23 December, when they were camped near the Rawlinson Range, Domeycr noted, 'They are trying to set us on foot like they did Lasseter. It must be the same mob that raided his camp in 1930'.
His entry for Christmas Day read: “What a day. What a Christmas, although Bill cooked a first-class dinner. We had two stuffed rabbits which I caught last night and gravy and a big plum duff. It was extra. The natives were prowling about all day today. We couldn't see them but the dogs kept running out barking. They must have been just in the scrub. They are very cunning and have plenty of patience. They will watch a camp all day.”
The party made a difficult crossing of the Dixon Range after Christmas: “What a battle we had to get across as the range, was steeper than it looked. We got to the top of one hill and had a battle to get down off of it as it was very steep. It was over half a mile to the bottom on the north side. We had to take one camel down at a time and to make matters worse, Bluey scattered his load all over the hill”.
They then travelled to Sladden Water where a good water supply could be obtained by digging down into a creek-bed. They rested there for a day, did their washing, and had a much-needed bath. Sandflies were very bad and Harry Domeyer described them as being 'as big as homing pigeons'.
The party struck trouble early in February when Tom Kelly went down with the 'Barcoo spews'. His illness was possibly caused by contaminated water. Domeyer often mentioned having to clean out soaks full of dead birds and rabbits, or even foxes and kangaroos, before they could get to the water.
In the searing heat of early February, Joe Solomon became lost among the sand-dunes near the Livesey Range. Domeyer had gone out early to collect the camels before moving on again and found all of them but one. He returned to the camp, had breakfast, and went back to look for the straying camel, after telling the other men to stay at the camp and pack up. Domeyer returned with the lost camel to find that Solomon was missing, having set out to help him search. Domeyer wrote: “Then the search was on. Bill and I followed his tracks and after a lot of walking and tracking, we found him running up and down between sandhills. He was that shocked that he couldn't talk. Tom had also put up a smoke signal. Eventually, we got him quietened down and packed up. But after we got about five miles he went out to it so we had to stop and give him some brandy and Bovril which we always kept for such cases. We let him lay under a shade till he picked up a bit then we pushed on another three miles to Liversey Range. It was 5 p.m. then so we lost half a day.” He also noted that such an incident could cause the loss of lives, as it was 'red hot' in those sandy hills of the Great Victoria Desert.
The men had been looking forward to examining the Livesey Range, as Paddy Whelan, a well-known Kalgoorlie prospector and publican, had talked of finding gold there 'by the bucketful'. But Domeyer and his party saw 'only five little sandstone hills jutting up out of the Great Victoria Desert'. They started heading back to the Warburton Range on 23 February and near Haslett's Well were surprised to see a landing strip which had not been there when they had passed through. They also found some two-month-old newspapers at a near-by camp and read them avidly.
Another surprise awaited them when they reached Minnie Creek three weeks later. There they found Stucky and party heading out once again for the Livesey Ranges. Domeyer was rather cynical about their chances of finding any gold but he drew them a plan of possible water sources. Six days later, when they reached White Cliffs station, they ate fresh meat and tasted potatoes for the first time in three months. They were also given fresh cabbages and lettuces, grown at the station by Mr Drake-Brockman, the manager.
On 27 March 1933, after a round trip of 2,570 kilometres, the tired and shabby men arrived back at Laverton with their footsore camels. Part of Harry Domeyer's last entry reads, ' … and we found no gold'.
First published in: "Colourful Tales of the Western Australian Goldfields", by Norma King, Rigby Press 1980. Revised and published by Lorraine Kelly 10 March 2020. Copyright Lorraine Kelly 2020.