When writing my 2015 book Olof’s Suitcase: Lasseter’s Reef mystery solved, I was initially quite prepared to accept the conventional wisdom that my Swedish grandfather, Olof Johanson, was incidental to the drama surrounding the 1930 Central Australian Gold Exploration (CAGE) Company’s expedition to re-locate the gold reef supposedly discovered by “Harry” Lasseter several decades earlier. All the evidence I uncovered pointed to the fact that the two men never met in person, and only discussed the reef’s supposed existence in letters exchanged from opposite sides of the Australian continent in the weeks before the CAGE expedition set out for Alice Springs from Sydney in July 1930.
Admittedly, there was briefly a hiccough when I was forced to contemplate the thought that Grandfather Olof might have borne a far heavier burden of responsibility in promoting what has become one of the most notorious myths of Australian folklore. This came about after film-maker Luke Walker observed in his 2012 documentary Lasseter’s Bones that if Lasseter had never been in Central Australia before then he was probably only peddling a story he obtained from someone else – someone like Olof, who Lasseter later maintained could vouch for the truth of his own claims because Johanson had previously stumbled on the same reef and also knew its location.
Luke’s suggestion was that if Lasseter based his claims on information that Olof originally provided, then what everyone had come to describe as “Lasseter’s Reef” might more properly be referred to as “Johanson’s Reef”. This was a highly discomforting thought. Happily, after a timeframe had been established for the communications that passed between Lasseter and Olof it became apparent that my grandfather could not have been to blame in any way for originating the reef story. Lasseter had been spruiking his bogus claims long before Olof first got in touch with him in late May of 1930. It was a great relief that Olof seemed to be ‘off the hook’…
Except that only recently I have come to realise – two years after Olof’s Suitcase appeared – that Grandfather Olof is not entirely in the clear. While he may not have been the cause of the stories Lasseter began telling, first to two federal and state parliamentarians in late 1929 and then (when that failed to get the result he wanted) to Jack Bailey of the Australian Workers Union in March 1930, Olof’s subsequent communications with Lasseter became crucial in determining what would happen once Lasseter got out into Central Australia with the expedition he was engaged to guide to the “lost” reef. Because Lasseter knew all along that his story was bogus (see my blog post of 27 Feb), he simply (but secretly) made Olof’s story the focus of his quest and went in search of Johanson’s reported find instead.
There are four key elements to understanding that this is the only interpretation of the events of 1930 that makes any sense.
- It explains why Lasseter pushed so hard to get the focus of the expedition’s search moved south from the Macdonnell Ranges to the Petermann Ranges, the reason being that Olof had told him that this was where he was dingo-hunting when he made his find.
- lt explains why Lasseter asked the expedition’s organisers in Sydney to contact a man named Johanson in Boulder City, Western Australia, and get him to meet Lasseter at Lake Christopher, the reason being that Lasseter had been unable to locate Olof’s find on his own, and Lake Christopher represented a recognisable landmark for someone who was expected to travel overland and enter the “search area” from the western side.
- It explains why Lasseter then took himself off to Lake Christopher and camped there for more than a month, waiting for Olof to arrive, before abandoning the vigil once it was apparent that Johanson wasn’t coming.
- And it explains why, while Lasseter was marooned in his pathetic cave at Tjunti courting starvation and death, he still fumed in frustration and anger at the failure of ‘Johansen’ – the only man who he believed also knew where the reef lay – to come to his rescue.
About to go in search of Johanson’s Reef: Lasseter (left) and Johns separate from the CAGE expedition, 15 September 1930
As soon as it is recognised that Lasseter’s claims about finding his reef – whether in 1897, 1900 or 1911 (all of which he claimed at various retellings) – were nothing but make believe, it becomes understandable that the apparently true story that he got from Olof Johanson became a far more compelling alternative. The best means for testing the balance of probabilities of what happened in 1930-31 is to remove the “Olof factor” from the equation and ask: would Lasseter have behaved in the same fashion and made the same decisions that he did? The answer is probably not.
When I wrote Olof’s Suitcase I intentionally subtitled it “Lasseter’s Reef mystery solved” as a deliberate, but ultimately justified, marketing tease. Since 85 years of effort had failed to produce any supporting evidence, Lasseter’s claims to have found a reef could not be viewed as anything other than a myth. The only element of the mystery that remained to be solved, in my view, was who the “Johannsen” from Ion Idriess’ book Lasseter’s Last Ride really was and what became of him – both questions which my book finally and comprehensively answered. It has, however, only belatedly dawned on me that the mystery surrounding the 1930 expedition actually has also been put to rest in the process.
In October-November 1930 my grandfather Olof Johanson was in Central Australia looking for what he thought might be Lasseter’s reef. At the same time Lasseter was also still out there searching for a gold reef that he knew would have been Johanson’s.
Softcover and eBook (pdf) versions of Olof’s Suitcase can be obtained from the distributors listed at https://www.echobooks.com.au/biography/olofs-suitcase/. Hardcover copies are still available only from the publisher at firstname.lastname@example.org.