In 1929, Harold Bell Lasseter transfixed Australia with a tale of a quartz outcrop in the heart of the continent containing gold nuggets "as thick as plums in a pudding". He had stumbled across the reef, buried beneath sand hills in Western Australia's remote Gibson Desert, he claimed, while prospecting for rubies three decades earlier.
At the time, his story sparked hopes of an Australian El Dorado which could lift the nation out of the Great Depression. With backing from Sydney financiers, Lasseter set off to rediscover the reef. But his expedition was plagued by logistical problems, physical hardships and bickering. After his companions deserted him and his camels wandered off, he died of exhaustion and malnutrition – but not before locating the reef, according to his diary, which was found in a cave in the Petermann Ranges, south-west of Alice Springs.
A series of expeditions in the 1930s tried to find the gold, without success. Despite scepticism about the story, Lasseter's Reef has become one of the Outback's most enduring myths, spawning films and books. Eighty years on, fortune-seekers ranging from lone unknown prospectors to Dick Smith, a wealthy Oz businessman, are still looking for it. And now a group of "ordinary blokes" from Tamworth, in New South Wales, believe they are on the verge of striking lucky.
Jeff Harris was 10 years old when the legend first gripped him. His best friend, Brendan Elliott, was similarly affected. The boys promised each other they would find the reef. As adults, they searched archives and scoured dog-eared maps, hungry for any clue that might lead them to it.
Five years ago, Mr Harris had an epiphany. While flicking through a copy of Lasseter's diary, which contains sketches and written accounts of his last journey, he opened up Google Earth on his computer. He began tracing Lasseter's route, matching landmarks recorded in the diary with geological features on the satellite mapping service. "Every mark he put in his diary, I followed it," he says. "Every picture in the diary, I matched on Google Earth. I drove my missus nuts once I started working it out. I'd stay up all night, miss a day's work."
A year on, he pinpointed what he believed was a giant quartz outcrop – quartz often denotes the presence of gold. Since then, he and his mates have made five trips to the area, near the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The men are convinced they have found the reef, and plan to head out again in the coming months. Next time, they are almost certain, they will find the gold.
Many would say they are chasing a dream. Neither the government nor any mining company believes there is gold beneath the sand hills. Local Aboriginal people have called Lasseter's Reef a "whitefella dreaming" and others believe he was a fantasist.
One who is sure the treasure exists is Lasseter's 88-year-old son, Bob, who has travelled to the Gibson Desert a dozen times, searching for his father's landmarks. "I've found the cave where he sheltered for a month or so, and the sand hill where the camels bolted," he says. "I believe somebody will find the gold, and I'd like somebody to find it before I die. To me, it's real."
Gold was first found in Western Australia in 1892, sparking one of the world's final rushes. The population of the "Golden West", as the then colony called itself, nearly quadrupled within a decade – a foretaste of the modern-day mining boom that has made it Australia's wealthiest state.
Mr Harris and his friends found a reef of the size recorded by Lasseter – 14 miles long – on their third trip to an area they describe as so isolated it feels as if no man has set foot there before. They have also discovered a waterhole and marker stones documented in the diary, as well as the letters "ASSE" carved into hard clay. "We've not found any gold yet, but we're sure there's gold there," says Mr Harris, who has lodged a claim over the site, which is on Aboriginal land. "We've got no backers, it's just me and eight or nine mates. For me, it's not so much about the money, but wanting to solve the mystery."
The group – armed with hi-tech equipment such as ground-penetrating radar – has found geological features described by Lasseter, such as "wavy" sedimentary rocks formed by what was once an inland sea. The site is a four-hour helicopter flight from the nearest inhabited spot, the Aboriginal community of Warburton, and lies 36 kilometres off a very rough track. "We're pretty sure we're in the right area," says one of Mr Harris's friends, Laurie Watts. "But we're still looking in a very big haystack. You're going to have to practically walk over the thing [gold] to find it."
Like Mr Harris, Mr Watts wants to prove that Lasseter – who has given his name to a highway and a casino in Alice Springs – "wasn't a bullshitter". He says: "This is an Australian fable that no one really believes, and we want to prove it's true. I think Lasseter was a really fair dinkum [genuine], honest-to-goodness bloke, and I don't think for one minute he was lying about the gold."
As for the riches – if they find them – Mr Harris says: "We respect the traditional owners of the land, and we respect that it's a national legend. If we find anything, we'd look to find a way to share it with Australia. We're all mindful of what's happened in the past with mining companies sucking the wealth out of the country."
Whether the gold would bring happiness to anyone is another question. One of Lasseter's final diary entries, as he waited in vain for help, reads: "What good a reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread."
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