Two Missing Boys
The Canterbury Cemetery, South West Queensland.
The town of Canterbury was located fifty miles (80km) west of Windorah (previously known as Stony Point) on the Bedourie road. During his explorations of the Cooper Creek country in the 1870s, John Costello had carved his initials on a tree while camped at that spot. From then onwards the camp site was known locally as The JC. As time passed a store, a hotel and a few building associated with it, were established at the site, all known as The JC. The town remained The JC. long after it was gazetted as Canterbury. Even in 2017 the locals still refer to the site as The JC.
The tree, as well as the buildings, has long since disappeared, leaving the cemetery as the only reminder of the small community. The hotel is a few piles of earth scattered with broken bottles and fragments of the building, but the cemetery is well maintained. It is a prime example of how harsh life was for the early settlers and is the last resting place for several children.
George Adam Geiger
One of the children, George Adam Geiger, was two years and four months old when he went missing in 1893. His father owned the JC Hotel. Merv Geiger, who would have been the boy's nephew had he survived, told me the story.
The little boy had a pet lamb which was taken by dingoes. He followed them trying to rescue it. When his parents realised he was missing, everyone in the district joined the search. They combed the scrub close to the pub, but goats had obliterated the boy's tracks. The searchers eventually found one leg and a few bones. These were discovered much further away than the searchers expected. No one had thought that such a young boy was capable of walking as far as he had.
The story is George had been attacked and killed by dingoes. This is quite possible as dingoes, especially in a pack, are capable of attacking an adult. Whether they did kill the little boy or simply discovered his body after he died of exposure will never be known.
His grave is in a small iron railed enclosure. The headstone carries a much simplified version of the story, and is engraved with a representation of a lamb. The engraving of a lamb on the headstone was a common practice when children were buried and denotes innocence. So the story of Adam tying to rescue a pet lamb may be a misunderstanding.
The words on his headstone are;
In loving memory
GEORGE ADAM GEIGER
who strayed away on
July 1st 1893
died from exposure.
Dunmarra, Northern Territory
Two plaques used to be set on rocks outside the Dunmarra Roadhouse on the Stuart Highway, halfway between Tennant Creek and Katherine. They were an enigma to most travellers. Others didn't notice them. They are no longer there, for when Steve Liebelt sold Dunmarra, he moved them to his new home.
One plaque remembered Noel Healy who, for many years, ran the Dunmarra roadhouse with his wife Thelma.
The other was dedicated to a child who had barely started his life.
Clinton Liebelt was eight years old when he became lost in October 1993, one hundred years after Adam Geiger became lost at Canterbury. Dunmarra was no larger than Canterbury had been, and the response to Clinton's disappearance was identical. Everyone turned out to search for the lost child. This time though, thanks to modern communication and appeals via radio and television, the search was widely publicised. Over the nine days more than twelve hundred people were involved. Help came from all over Australia and it became the largest search in the history of the Northern Territory.
On Saturday 9 October 1993 Steve Liebelt, Clinton's father, was searching the bush looking for two horses which had broken out of the Dunmarra paddock. After lunch Clinton decided he would help his father, so set off on his 80cc trail bike. He was last seen at one thirty in the afternoon. Once it was realised Clinton was missing local volunteers began a search.
Steve is a retired Northern Territory police officer who had spent most of his working life in small outback communities. He and Adele, his wife, had taught Clinton and his elder brother Gregory, who was ten, what to do if ever they became lost in the bush. The two boys each had a haversack that they called their survival pack. These contained water, matches and some fruit. Enough to last a day.
By Sunday the Emergency Services had joined the search and Clinton's trail bike was found at 0740 hours, about ten kilometres from Dunmarra. The bike was undamaged with plenty of petrol in the fuel tank. It is thought the engine had overheated and seized. Six aircraft joined the search, three were mustering helicopters from nearby stations. Aboriginal trackers were brought in to follow the footprints leading away from the abandoned bike. This was not easy through the Murranji Scrub and made more difficult because the ground was hard so the few footprints were indistinct. Added to these difficulties was the temperature, over 30oC early in the morning and approaching 40oC as each day progressed. Later in the search the day temperatures soared to well above those levels.
That night the searchers camped in the area where the bike was found, lighting large fires in the hope that Clinton would see them, but that was a forlorn hope in the dense scrub. On Monday the 11th the search restarted at first light. They found Clinton's jeans and bare footprints late in the afternoon about eight kilometres from Dunmarra. His boots were found over a kilometre away. An hour later one of the mustering helicopters crashed. The pilot and observer were injured and were rushed to Katherine hospital. The search was abandoned for the night. Food and water was left at high points with flashing strobe lights set above the cache. A note at each light read, Water below the light. Clinton, stay here.
Clinton had now been missing for forty-eight hours and the searchers were fearful he was delirious. He would certainly be dehydrated. The search had intensified and over two hundred people were involved, including a search and rescue helicopter and two tracker dogs from the RAAF base at Tindal.
That night the police launched a Territory wide appeal for volunteers to join the searchers. They still hoped to find Clinton alive. Adele had scoured Clinton's room without discovering his haversack and it was hoped he had it with him.
The response to the appeal was overwhelming. Three busloads of volunteers arrived soon after dawn having travelled overnight from Katherine, six hundred kilometres to the north. As the search dragged on more people arrived by the bus-load. Not only from Northern Territory towns such as Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, but from interstate, Mount Isa in Queensland and Coober Pedy in South Australia. Motorists abandoned their journey to help. Tourists sacrificed their holiday to swell the search. Truck drivers stopping for fuel heard of Clinton's disappearance and left their road-trains to join the searchers. Police from "Down the Track" gave up their leave. Stockmen from surrounding stations brought their horses and after a week, when they were ordered back to take care of their station work, they refused to return. Finding a lost boy was more important then mustering bullocks.
The roadhouse staff worked incessantly with the help of other volunteers to provide three meals a day for the search parties. A small medical centre was set up at Dunmarra to treat the injuries the volunteers sustained in the impenetrable Murranji Scrub where the search was taking place. The Murranji Scrub is so thick it defeated several attempts by John McDouall Stuart to find a passage through on his fifth expedition to discover a north-south route across Australia.
Children on isolated stations, who were part of Clinton's class in the School of the Air, followed the reports avidly.
But help was not just limited to people donating their time. Supermarkets in Port Augusta and Adelaide sent crates of food, including fresh vegetables and fruit. A fuel distributor in Katherine donated $10,000 worth of av-gas. Companies placed their vehicles at the disposal of the search co-ordinator. Stations responded by bringing their mustering helicopters. Mining companies provided their expertise. The Army and RAAF sent men and tracker dogs with equipment. It seemed the whole country was involved.
By Tuesday twenty-five members of the Army's NORFORCE regiment and fifteen members of the Sydney based, 1st Combat Engineer Regiment had joined the searchers. Fifty additional RAAF personnel and two replacement tracker dogs were sent from Tindal RAAF Base. During the day fresh orange peel was found and it was hoped Clinton had thrown it away. Three men and one of the tracker dogs had to be treated for dehydration. More footprints were found about five kilometres south east of where his jeans were found. The police were worried he was bare footed and the ground temperatures were about 40oC, but Clinton ran around bare footed most of the time, so this may not have been the problem they feared.
On Wednesday the search again resumed before dawn, but by now hopes of finding Clinton alive were fading. The number of people arriving to swell the army of searchers continued to grow. On Thursday Clinton's goggles and socks were found during three line searches, but no fresh tracks were discovered.
Even though all hopes of finding Clinton alive had disappeared the search was never scaled back. Instead it grew throughout the week as more people arrived to help in anyway they could. Superintendent Mick van Heythusen, who was in charge of the operation, described the response to the appeal as unbelievable. Many of the searchers had to be counselled for trauma. Others added to the list of dehydrated, some collapsed, but they all returned to the search lines after treatment from the doctors and nurses in the temporary medical centre.
On Monday 18th the search ended when Clinton's body was found seven kilometres farther west from where his clothes had been discovered. He'd been lost for nine days. It was seventeen kilometres from Dunmarra, an incredible distance for an eight year old to walk barefoot in that heat without food and water.
Clinton's grandparents, Pat and Vic Stokes published a letter in the Northern Territory News trying to thank everyone who helped. Ten years after the tragedy travellers were still calling at the Dunmarra roadhouse and saying sadly they had been involved in the search.
Clinton is buried in the Katherine Cemetery, but for Adele and Steve, their place of mourning is where the body was found. They have erected a memorial at that site, which they call "Clint's Place". Both Clinton's grave and the memorial have an identical plaque to that on the rock which used to rest at Dunmarra.
The wording is;
In loving memory of
CLINTON VICTOR LIEBELT
8 years old 1
2 . 2 . 85 — 11 . 10 . 93
Loved son and brother of
Steve & Adele, Greg & Ben
Lost in the bus
Forever in our hearts
His pet name was Possum, which is the reason a possum is depicted at the side of the plaque.
© Jim Ditchfield 2017