A small party will trek into Kakadu National Park this weekend, marking the start of a project that will examine what could be the last campsite of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt before he found the South Alligator River valley in 1845.
During an off-track bushwalk near Jim Jim Falls late last year, Charles Darwin University academic Dan Baschiera and his wife Annie Whybourne, a pediatrician, used Leichhardt's journal notes from his epic journey from the Darling Downs in southern Queensland to Port Essington in the NT to locate the area of his camp site atop the Kakadu escarpment.
"Leichhardt and his party were months overdue at Port Essington and were considered dead, but in fact the explorer had become entangled in the dangerously crevassed sandstone of the Arnhem Land plateau," Mr Baschiera said.
"On 18 November 1845, the party and their livestock made their way down the 300 metre high escarpment to the river valley, making the German explorer probably the first European to walk in what we now know as Kakadu," Mr Baschiera said.
During their own exploration, Mr Baschiera and Dr Whybourne found a tree near Jim Jim Falls which carried the blaze "LL". Early explorers commonly cut their initials into trees to mark their route through new country.
"We were aware that Leichhardt often marked his campsites by carving his ‘LL' initials into a tree. Our object was to find the existence of one of these blazes as it would indicate a possible campsite and once and for all put away the controversy that Leichhardt was inaccurate in his navigation. We had his coordinates, so we just needed a little luck," Mr Baschiera said.
The couple spent weeks studying Leichhardt's journals and original map before embarking on their own investigation. What they found were initials on the tree, old rope burns, and cuts and slashes on nearby trees, which the explorer might have used to support a canvas shelter. If confirmed, the blaze is in the exact position that Leichhardt marked on his original map.
The Federal Department of the Environment has given Mr Baschiera and Darwin-based archaeologist Doug Hobbs permission to investigate the site in depth next dry season. They will be accompanied by Traditional Owners.
This weekend's trek will involve a preliminary inspection of the site to determine the research methods to be used in the project next year.
Mr Baschiera said many questions remained about the tree at Jim Jim Falls and he hoped to have some answers after next year's expedition. "In short, we may be navigating back into Australian exploration history," he said.