Last Updated May 24, 2023.
Johann Ulrich Voss is a German botanist who has come to Australia with the single idea of making an expedition across the entire continent. Voss is a strange, solitary character, obsessed with exploring this unknown land. After two years in the country, during which time he has completed some minor expeditions alone, he has secured the support of a wealthy patron, Mr. Bonner, and gathered four companions to accompany him on his journey. These men are Harry Robarts, a simple-minded but powerful boy, Frank Le Mesurier, a cynical young man with no purpose in life, Palfreyman, a clergyman and ornithologist, and a drunkard named Turner.
At Mr. Bonner’s house, Voss meets Laura Trevelyan, the Bonners’ niece who was orphaned and came to live with them when she was a child. Neither particularly likes the other at first, but on a picnic at Point Piper they talk about Voss’s expedition and realize that they understand each other better than any of those around them. A week before Voss leaves, Mrs. Bonner gives a party to celebrate the departure of the expedition, which she assures her husband is an event of national importance. When Laura goes out into the garden after dinner, she finds Voss there and admits that she is fascinated by him and concerned about him. Voss says he thinks she would like to pray for him but does not believe in God, and Laura replies that she will learn to pray. He imagines her prayers, “like little pieces of white paper,” following him through the vast interior of Australia.
Voss’s expedition travels by sea to Newcastle on the Osprey, and then on horseback to Rhine Towers, the home of Mr. Sanderson, one of the sponsors. There they meet two more men whom Bonner has proposed should join the expedition: Angus, a wealthy landowner, and Judd, a former convict. Voss and his companions stay at Rhine Towers for several days before setting out for Jildra, their final stop before they venture into the unknown interior of the continent. On his final night with the Sandersons, Voss writes to Laura proposing marriage and asking her to send her reply to him at Jildra. She does so, and Voss receives it on his last night there. Laura writes that they are both arrogant and full of faults, but she is prepared to wrestle with their ”mutual hatefulness” and pray together, if he will do the same.
The expedition leaves Jildra and travels into the desert. Voss finds that he has clear visions of Laura, and feels a psychic connection to her. The party camps for a few days at Christmas, and more than half their cattle are stolen. Other animals die on the journey and they are forced to camp again when Voss is kicked in the stomach by a wounded mule. When one of their aboriginal guides, an old man named Dugald, asks to be sent back to Jildra, Voss gives him a letter to send to Laura. However, Dugald thinks that white people use writing to rid themselves of oppressive thoughts, and tears up the letter.
Rose Portion, the Bonners’ maid, gives birth to an illegitimate child, whom she calls Mercy, and dies soon afterwards. Laura, who felt the pain of the pregnancy and childbirth as though they were her own, takes care of Mercy and writes to Voss to tell him of this new development, saying that along with him, the little girl is her greatest joy. In the meantime, Voss is traveling west through the desert, where he cannot receive any letters. Heavy rain and the sickness...
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of the men, particularly Frank Le Mesurier, compel him to camp in a cave for an extended period. To reach the cave, he has to cross a river and loses many of the supplies, navigational instruments, and scientific specimens when a raft capsizes. Voss begins to believe that the former convict, Judd, has plans to mutiny and take over leadership of the expedition.
Mr. and Mrs. Bonner want Laura to give up Mercy, since they believe that caring for the child is harming her marital prospects. They arrange for a couple to adopt the child, but the wife decides against it, saying that Mercy would have too many mothers. Belle Bonner is married to her fiancé, Lieutenant Radclyffe and Laura goes to a large ball to celebrate their wedding. When she returns in the early hours of the morning, she writes to Voss, but realizes there is no way for her letter to reach him and tears it up.
Voss’s expedition finally leaves the cave in spring and continues into a treacherous part of the country, full of gullies. When Voss asks him to shoot an injured horse, Judd does so and then furiously pelts the dead animal with stones. Later, when they have camped, Judd tells Voss that he is going back to Jildra. Turner and Angus decide to join him and the expedition splits into two, with the stores divided between them.
Voss finds that a group of natives is following his party at a distance, and they camp alongside the three remaining members of the expedition when they find water. Soon after they arrive, Frank Le Mesurier cuts his own throat and Harry Robarts dies. Finally, the natives slaughter their horses, after which Jackie, an aboriginal guide from Jildra who has joined their tribe, cuts off Voss’s head.
Years later, Laura, who is now teaching at a girls’ school, is invited to a party to meet Colonel Hebden, an explorer who has recently returned from an expedition to find Voss. She protests that she and Voss only spent a few hours together and says that he had “horrible qualities.” When Hebden says that he will return to Jildra to renew his search, Laura discourages him, but this is counterproductive. Hebden mounts a well-organized expedition into the desert to search for Voss but it is unsuccessful. He has a dream about Judd, Angus, and Turner, after which he turns back.
After another twenty years, a statue of Voss is unveiled in Sydney. Laura attends the ceremony, where she is introduced to Judd, who talks to her about Voss, though his memories are confused. Although he has already told everyone that he left Voss in the desert, now he claims that he was present when Voss died with a spear in his side. However, Laura says that she is content when he tells her that Voss is “there in the country, and always will be.” That evening, at a party given by Belle, she repeats these words when one of the guests asks about Voss.