"The expedition was in the Ehrenberg Range country, just on the fringe of the desert."
Ion Idriess, Lasseter's Last Ride, pg. 35.


The Ehrenberg Ranges are located about 230 miles west, by slightly north, of Alice Springs and were quite unknown to wider Australia before the 29th April 1930, that Tuesday the Press announced details of Donald MacKay's next expedition to Central Australia, a privately financed aerial mapping exercise, "The base will be at Illbilla, an aboriginal camping place in the Ehrenberg Ranges". Very likely Harold Lasseter had never heard of the Ehrenberg's prior to MacKay's press release, and he had no intention of travelling there, yet this low desolate range and its poisonous waterhole became a significant locale in the Lasseter saga.

The ranges were named by Ernest Giles in late September 1872, he had earlier based his companions, Carmichael and Robinson at Mount Udor, a scant enough water supply about 45 miles to the south east and  then forayed alone to the ranges he had sighted earlier, always hoping for water and so gain another small increment west, he penned a grim picture,

At the foot of the mountain for which I was steering there was a little creek or gully, with some eucalypts where I struck it. It was, as all the others had been, scrubby, rocky, and dry. I left the horses and ascended to the top, about 900 feet above the scrubs which surrounded it. The horizon was broken by low ranges nearly all round, but scrubs as usual intervened between them. I descended and walked into dozens of gullies and rocky places, and I found some small holes and basins, but all were dry. At this spot I was eighty miles from a sufficient supply of water; that at the camp, forty-five miles away, may be gone by the time I return. Under these circumstances I could not go any farther west. It was now evening again. I left these desolate hills, the Ehrenberg Ranges of my map, and travelled upon a different line, hoping to find a better or less thick route through the scrubs, but it was just the same, and altogether abominable. Night again overtook me in the direful scrubs, not very far from the place at which I had slept the previous night; the most of the day was wasted in an ineffectual search for water.

The Ehrenbergs and Lake Amadeus defeated Giles, although he was notably successful  on a later expedition. In 1889 W. H. Tietkens, (Giles second in command on his 1873 and 1875 expeditions) with two white companions  explored through the area on behalf of the Central Australian Exploring and Prospecting Association and the South Australian Branch of The Royal Geographical Society. He named Mount Leisler, "the loftiest landmark seen on the expedition" after a Victorian friend and benefactor, and perhaps caused Fred Blakeley some confusion by renaming the Ehrenbergs the Magarey Range which Blakeley later translated to Mount Marjorie. In 1902, R. T. Maurice and W. R. Murray  thoroughly explored the ranges and found nothing favourable to report, noting the complete absence of Aboriginals, animal and bird life. These apparently waterless, uninhabited and unmineralised ranges were then forgotten for nearly thirty years until MacKay announced that Illbilla would be the base for an extensive aerial survey of one of the least known parts of Australia.

The only records available to that time were those of Giles, Tietkens, Maurice and Murray, in total, less than a page of desolation, desert and scrub, therefore meeting an important criteria for the Mackay Expedition. An article in the Argus on 12/07/1930 revealed that Mackay had already gathered a great deal of information about the Ehrenbergs,

"Consultation with the residents who knew the country and who were in a position to obtain reliable information from the aborigines to the west of settlement in the territory indicated that a satisfactory water supply close to ground suitable to an aerodrome would be found in the Ehrenberg Ranges, and as this was on the eastern fringe of a region completely unknown, Illbilla, an aboriginal camping place in the Ehrenbergs was chosen as the base."

The 'residents' that Mackay had consulted, were the staff at Hermannsburg Mission, where he was well known and highly regarded from his 1926 expedition to the Petermann Ranges with Herbert Basedow. The Mission teacher, H. A. Heinrich, (who later signed Lasseter's death certificate) was particularly well informed about the Aboriginals living to the west and north and when opportunity offered, travelled widely through their lands. Also well known to the Mission and Mackay was one Robert Henry Buck, who was commissioned to set up the Expeditions base at Illbilla and under the clearest instruction to keep signal fires burning from the 26th of May until the expedition arrived,

"This precaution is necessary, because the position of the Ehrenberg Ranges, in which Illbilla camp will be situated, is shown in widely different positions on different maps. The true position is not known to within 60 miles. This is one of the many discrepancies which it is hoped to remove by the present survey."

The Mackay expeditions expert staff included the journalist/scientist Phillip Crosbie Morrison MSc, who wrote for the Argus as the Special Representative With The Mackay Aerial Survey Expedition. Throughout June and July 1930, Morrison's frequent and detailed reports from Illbilla were widely read and the Ehrenbergs had become one of the better known parts of remote Australia. Surprisingly, the ranges were inhabited, by 20 to 30 Aboriginals from the Pintos and Eumos Tribes who seemed friendly enough at the time, and Illbilla, the only known waterhole perhaps within hundreds of square miles, was adequate for the Aboriginals and Expeditions needs, but failing under the onslaught of Bucks camels. The water had become highly mineralised and polluted, three members of the Expedition were very ill with dysentery. Errol Coote would have been especially interested to read that Buck had set up a comfortable and leafy base camp and had cleared an aerodrome 700 hundred yards square.

At about this time Ern Bailey, Secretary of C.A.G.E., wrote to Colonel Brinsmead, the Director of Civil Aviation, reminding the Colonel of the writers importance and requesting information about flying in remote areas,

"It is the intention of my Company to despatch an expedition, consisting of 1 Moth plane and a Thornycroft six wheeled truck, into the Central regions of Australia, approximately 400 miles West to North West of Alice Springs, to relocate a gold reef"

The Colonels detailed and informative reply stressed the importance of employing only the most experienced pilot and enclosed "very meagre notes of the country in vicinity of Alice Springs",  he finished his letter with some advice, "I would suggest that your pilot gets in touch with Mr. Neale ~ who is at present flying over that country with the McKay expedition which, I understand, is to return to Melbourne on the 26th inst." There is no record of anyone from C.A.G.E. contacting the Mackay Expedition, yet Michael Terry made a point of meeting Mackay when he returned to Adelaide, and there was a free exchange of information, in such detail in fact that a member of Terry's expedition was able to recover Morrison's camera that had fallen from one of the planes when MacKay's Expedition left Ayers Rock on the 25/06/30. Mackay and Terry saw that the only way to get the best out of the 'Centre was to share the knowledge and experience for the benefit of all. Of course the Baileys, and especially Coote, had no intention of being altruistic, the Baileys had a share market fraud in mind and Coote had invested heavily in C.A.G.E. with five personal and family shares and an aircraft.

By the time the First C.A.G.E. Expedition left Alice Springs on the 24th July, it was a poorly kept secret that the base of operations would be Illbilla, much against Lasseter's wishes who protested on several occasions that the Expedition was off course, ultimately by 150 miles too far north at Mount Leisler. Except for a single reference to the Warburton Ranges in Western Australia, Lasseter was consistent in his claims that his reef was located in the South West Aboriginal Reserve and a gold reef 400 miles west of Alice Springs as indicated by Ern Bailey  is not in the same State or Territory as a gold reef in the South West Aboriginal Reserve. It was Blakeley and Coote who decided on Illbilla, Blakeley, as leader of the Expedition made a reasonable choice in reusing the recently abandoned Mackay base, it was several hundred miles west of Alice Springs well established and had a water supply of sorts, Coote's main interest was the well beaten landing ground for the Golden Quest and both men were well aware that Illbilla and Mount Lyell Brown, the highest point in the Ehrenbergs were now precisely located, a distinct advantage if an expeditions destination thereafter was unknown.

Although Illbilla was not on Lasseter's itinerary he was an interested observer of the progress of the Mackay Expedition and there are various reports that he had contacted Mackay sometime in early May cadging a lift to Illbilla and from there to be dropped off at an unspecified location while he pegged gold claims. Mackay could not oblige, pointing out that his interest was aerial mapping and reinforced the point in a later interview, "I take no notice of stories about lost reefs". Apart from his observations on the flora and fauna, flying and radio conditions and numerous photographs of the Ehrenbergs, Crosbie made two reports that included items of direct interest to Lasseter and C.A.G.E., On the 21/06/1930

"A welcome break in the camp routine occurred on Tuesday, when a prospector,  travelling alone with a small string of camels, visited Illbilla. He picked up the tracks of the expedition's advance party, and followed them to the Ehrenberg Range. He left again yesterday for the Musgrave Ranges with a rough plan from the expeditions new maps as a guide."

The unnamed prospector has the distinct feel of Paul Johns about him, and MacKay's rough plan of the route to the Musgraves would probably be the most accurate map of Central Australia at that time. The day before Coote left Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald obligingly carried a fairly accurate map showing Illbilla as the radial point for fourteen survey flights, four possibly five of those flights photographed country to the south west of Illbilla that was later flown over by Pat Hall and Lasseter when Lasseter sighted the landmarks leading to his reef, suggesting that those unnamed landmarks are possibly on the Mackay Expedition photographs.


R.Ross. 1999-2006

National Archives Australia. Title,Aboriginal Reserve-Musgrave, Mann and Tompkinson Ranges. Barcode Series numberA3 Control symbol NT1914/7104 barcode 50076 FLIGHT November 1930, pgs 1257-1258. Ion Idriess, Lasseter's Last Ride,35,147. Fred Blakeley, Dream Millions,114,130.  Errol Coote, Hell's Airport, 111,112. Ray Ericksen, West of Centre. 187-210. Ernest Giles, Australia Twice Traversed, vol 1 pg63-65. The Melbourne Argus 13/05/1930, pg7. 19/07/1930, pg 7.