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An Aussie Rogue and an Irish Hero

Laurie Kavanah

reprinted from the Sunday Mail, October 17, 1998

Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross

Out on the wastes of the Never Never—that's where the dead men lie!
There where the heatwaves dance forever—that's where the dead men lie!
That's where the Earth's loved sons are keeping
Endless trysts: not the west wind sweeping
Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping—out where the dead men lie!

Those classic Barcroft Boake words could be a most fitting epitaph for Irish hero Timothy O'Hea and Aussie rogue Andrew Hume as they lie long dead and lost somewhere on isolated Nockatunga Station, 1140km west of Brisbane.

Unfortunately, at this stage it is a fine epitaph lacking only a tombstone on which to be chiselled. For despite many searches over the years, the odd couple remain locked in that far western Queensland limbo. Their earthly remains truly are lost in a wilderness out where the dead men lie.

What was the story behind this unlikely outback tragedy of Irish hero and an Aussie bushranger? Retired flying doctor Les Perrin has researched the tale to his book, The Mystery of the Leichhardt Survivors.

In June 1866, 23-year-old Private Timothy O'Hea and his British Rifle Brigade were standing by to defend Canada against an expected invasion by the Irish-American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, formed to liberate Ireland from British rule. O'Hea was chosen in a four-man squad to escort a secret shipment of 95 barrels of gunpowder and ammunition from Quebec City to Montreal. A group of 800 German migrants on the trek was blissfully unaware that the last wagon of their train contained enough explosive to wipe out the entire train and surrounding countryside. Worse! The Germans were locked into their carriages in case they became nosy and looked into the last wagon.

A halfway stop at the town of Danville attracted not only a crowd of locals to gawk at such a large number of migrants, but also a Canadian infantry company on hand to fend off any Fenian attack. While stopped in the centre of town, smoke was noticed seeping from the train's last carriage but only O'Hea and his three comrades were aware of the imminent danger. O'Hea's squad disconnected the smoking wagon and pushed it a short distance from the train before alerting the Canadian soldiers to the full danger.

Panic and confusion reigned as they tried to clear the area. Keys to the immigrant carriages could not be found and the Germans remained trapped. With smoke now pouring from the explosives wagon, O'Hea grabbed its keys from his sergeant, tore open the door and climbed into the smoke and flames. Onlookers, by now at a safe distance, saw him tear blazing covers off the explosives and began calling on him to save himself. He did more than that. He got a ladder for easier access and started a one-man bucket brigade, fighting the fire single-handed for almost an hour before others joined in the mopping up. Few were surprised when, 10 months later, O'Hea had the Victoria Cross pinned to his chest, the first such award away from the battlefield and the only one awarded in Canada.

At the same time, June 1866, 26-year-old Andrew Hume was making headlines on the other side of the world—and the law, copping 10 years' jail for a drunken stint—into bushranging when, full as a goog, he stuck up a shanty in Baradine, western New South Wales. But Hume was no ordinary man. He was an expert bushman who could disappear into the wilderness and survive for months on end with little whitefella provisions. He spoke a wide range of dialects and had an uncanny rapport with Aborigines, even the most warlike tribes he met on his amazing solo travels right across what is now NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Those who knew him called him the "white blackfella". He even introduced himself as "The Black Prince" in his short, disastrous bushranging career. He also had a weakness for strong drink whenever he got near a shanty which, fortunately, was not all that often. And he could keep a secret. For despite claiming to have found Leichhardt survivor Adolph Classen living with central Australian Aborigines on the lone journey from which he was returning when he hit the booze and disaster at Baradine, he mentioned nothing of it at his trial or during his first five years in jail.

It was a secret which would have been hard to keep because tales of a wild white man living with Aborigines beyond Cooper Creek surfaced occasionally to great excitement in the Sydney press, since the expedition disappeared in that region while trying to cross Australia from east to west in 1848. It was, and still is, one of the great mysteries. When he finally broke his silence in jail in 1871, sceptics said he was telling a whopper to gain a pardon. But an outback Queensland pastoralist, for whom Hume worked briefly on his way to tell his secret to the governor of New South Wales, said Hume had made the claim to him some time before being jailed.

Hume gained backing from the most unlikely quarters, the Rev John Dunmore Lang, first Presbyterian Minister of NSW, and an influential bureaucrat, Eccleston Du Faur, who had a great interest in the Leichhardt story. Both had sat on boards designed to cut Hume's claims to ribbons but came away true believers.

In 1871, Hume was released on the proviso he would relocate the wild white man he claimed was Classen, and either return with him or some of Leichhardt's documents and instruments he claimed to have seen. Hume went by ship to the Roper River (Northern Territory) in 1872, rode down the Overland Telegraph Line, which was then nearing completion, and disappeared into the scrub for a year. When he reappeared at the Roper River in November 1873, Hume claimed he was carrying a satchel full of Leichhardt's possessions, but said they were for official eyes only.

Unfortunately, the morning they were to be handed over to officials in Sydney, Hume discovered all items but an engraved telescope (believed to be Leichhardt's) missing from his swag, stolen, he said, aboard ship somewhere between the Roper and Sydney. Despite sceptics having a field day, Du Faur kept the faith and through public subscriptions raised the money to provision an expedition.

Hume and three others were to leave Maitland (north of Sydney) in late June 1874 for Nocka-tunga Station in outback Queensland, thence westward beyond Cooper Creek into the great unknown desert. Freezing rain and floods plagued the expedition from the outset, causing Hume to tarry for a snort or 10 at every shanty along the way. By the time they reached Murrurundl, about 160km north-west of Maitland, his three companions called it quits and deserted him.

But enter the famous Irish soldier hero, Timothy O'Hea, who had won his Victoria Cross eight years earlier and had just arrived in Sydney looking for adventure. Hearing of the Leichhardt search, O'Hea begged Du Faur to allow him to join Hume and, little more than a week after setting foot in Australia, was riding alongside Hume to their fate in far south-western Queensland. Along the way, this amazing duo of an Aussie rogue and an Irish hero became an even stranger trio when they were joined by part-time piano tuner and experienced bushman, Lewis Thompson.

For almost five months they slogged across little-known country through Mungindi on the Queensland border, Cunnamulla, Thargomindah and finally Nockatunga Station, a journey of roughly 1300km. It was now November of a particularly hot and dry summer with temperatures regularly over the century (100°F or 40°C). Despite this, Hume trusted his bush knowledge and past outback travels which told him Cooper Creek, their first goal after Nockatunga, ran north to south. Buoyed by this knowledge Hume decided to make a direct, one-day, 96km dash from their last known water hole to the Cooper. To make it easier he reduced the party's load by cutting its water supply to just three partly-filled personal water bags, while two large bags capable of carrying 23 litres remained empty.

Unfortunately for Hume, O'Hea and Thompson, they did not realise that Cooper Creek took a right angle turn about 48km above their westward course. They pushed west for two days and nights after their water ran out, hoping the Cooper would be just over the horizon, unaware they were travelling parallel to it, as it ran little more than a day's ride to the north. All they found in the extreme heat were endless sand hills and clay pans, but no water. By now starting to show the ravages of severe thirst, Hume cut his losses and turned back.

At the end of day three without water, they realised their position was becoming desperate. O'Hea, much less able to cope with the harsh conditions than the two bushmen, was in a woeful state, unable to speak through swollen tongue and parched lips and so weak he could not stay mounted on his horse. Finally Hume asked Thompson, the strongest man on the fittest horse, to scout ahead for water. On the fifth day, Thompson's gutsy little mare led him to a small waterhole. When he recovered, Thompson made two separate attempts to find his companions. By this time, they would have been without water for six days. Thompson made it back to Nockatunga Station in a desperate state.

A police party later found a body, which, despite its badly decomposed state, was presumed to be Hume. It was buried where it lay. The other man has never been found. But over the years doubts arose about the identity of the buried man, following the appearance of another wild white man living with Aborigines west of Nockatunga. Those reports continued right up to earlier this century. Les Perrin has spoken to old-timers in the district who heard such tales direct from Aborigines.

In recent years, the theory has emerged that this wild man was Hume, the "black whitefella" who could survive almost anywhere, shunning civilisation to avoid its condemnation for leading a Victoria Cross hero to his death. That, or maybe gone crazy from such desert privations of that last fatal trek. No-one can be sure until that old grave has been located and, official sanction permitting, a DNA test carried out on the remains. If it turn out to be O'Hea, then his old outfit, the British Rifle Brigade, will be keen to give this Irish hero what surely would have been his just reward had he died closer to civilisation than to the centre of Australia—a Victoria Cross hero's solemn but triumphant farewell.

If it turn out to be that old Aussie rogue Andrew Hume, well, he at least deserves his marker among his fellows out where the dead men lie.


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