1971 5000 miles against the desert by Mark de Graaf

Facing a lingering death from thirst, nomad Aborigines, haunted wells, cyclones and searing heat. This is the movie-plot setting for the story of the Western Australian North-South Expedition ~ Leader MARK de GRAAF describes this modern odyssey.

5000 miles against the desert


In four and half hours we had come precisely two hundred yards along part of our route across the grain of Australia. With four deserts to cross, we were bogged in a sea of mud.

Cyclone Sally had turned the country around us into a vast quagmire. We were in the Great Sandy Desert, and we should have passed Mount Romilly, on the desert's northern edge, more than a week ago. But between us and the sand lay an old natural drainage system, of which Lake Gravity, to our south-west, formed a part. Rain had run off the rugged hills to our east to fill that basin — and we were in it.


When the Minister for the North-West, Mr Graham, had farewelled our small party of 16 men from Parliament House in Perth on November 26, he had listed our problems as heat, lack of water and endless sand. Now we were desperately trying to reach that sand where, normally, every drop of rain would be a blessing.

The deluge had not come as a surprise. Summer is the rainy season in Northern Australia. August-September would have been a better time for this undertaking. Nevertheless, two factors had made me decide to run our expedition in the middle of summer.

Summer heat amplifies the problems of men and machines — it is more of a challenge to undertake a desert crossing in summer. We were going to make a colour documentary of the trip, so it was felt that the heat and "associated problems" would boost the impact of the film.

The starting point of our 2,250-mile journey, after we had driven along the coast from Perth, was to have been the isolated Kalumburu Mission on the Timor Sea, but an impassable Lennard River forced us to substitute Wyndham, to the south-east.

It was just as well we did not wait for the rivers to subside; the rains closed more crossings, and over four inches of rain fell the night after our party left Hall's Creek.

From Hall's Creek in the Kimberley to Wiluna in the goldfields — a distance of 1,000 miles — runs the Canning Stock Route. Surveyed and constructed by A. W. Canning in 1906-1907, it is probably not only the longest stock route in the world but also one of the driest. Its string of 51 wells traverses the Great Sandy Desert and part of the Gibson Desert, areas with an erratic rainfall of five to eight inches a year.

Even during its construction bullocks travelled the route from the disease-free Billiluna Station to the Wiluna area; mobs varied in size from 300 to 700. At a slow seven miles a day they threaded their way over and around the 800 or so sand ridges which straddle the Route.

In 1929, at the age of 65, Canning returned to supervise the recon­ditioning of the wells. Spinifex fires caused by lightning and hunting Aboriginal nomads often burned the woodwork around the wells, and Aborigines sometimes interfered with the well covers and other equipment. By 1958, when the last mob of bullocks came through, many of the wells had fallen into disrepair.

There is no track along this route, except at both ends. The bullock pads have long gone, but every now and then there are signs: an old tin, rusted and partly disintegrated, or hoof marks in hardened clay.

Off the route, there is no reliable water apart from Aboriginal wells.

Cyclone Sally had caught us part-way along Canning's Stock Route. Around us the Great Sandy Desert was the Great Brown Mud Hole.

Morale dropped as our progress went to virtually zero, and our twice-daily radio contact with the Special Air Services listening post near Perth became a monotonous and unchanging "Slow progress . , . Still raining . . . Hope to reach Well 45 tomorrow."Published in Walkabout, June 1972

The Commonwealth Government-sponsored radio vehicle was manned by Warrant Officer Ed Renton and Corporal Peter Thornton, both of the Special Air Services regiment. Accompanying them was Sergeant Don Jensen, of the SAS Infantry. To these men our expedition was another — though different —military exercise. But to us they were our lifeline.

Don Jensen acted as our scout astride a motorbike, keeping the five four-wheel-drive vehicles informed by radio of the least waterlogged paths through the basin. Without him, progress would have been even slower than the tortuous crawl it was.

Sand ridges are a feature of the Australian deserts, with the ex­ception of the Nullarbor Plain and Sturt's Stony Desert. Our deserts are sedimentary basins, which have been under water in the past. Sandstones laid down in these shallow seas have crumbled in time to give rise to the sand ridges of the present. The loose sand aligned itself along linear dunes according to the prevailing winds when Australia was more arid than it is now.

Most of these dunes run east-west, with minor local variations, so most expeditions in these areas run along an east-west axis. Our traverse, being "against the grain" — i.e. at right angles across the dunes — was not only almost unique but also much more difficult.

The sand ridges, fixed by vegetation, are up to 130 feet high. Some have lengths of twenty or more miles, and they are covered with spinifex and small shrubs. Desert Aborigines navigate in this featureless country by recognising the tall gums on almost every dune.

Soon after we reached Well 45, which had caved in, the country became sandy. Now the rain, for­merly a hindrance, became a blessing. Although the skies were clearing, the ground was still firm with dampness.

Two vehicles were converted to special sand tyres that night: huge eleven-inch-wide covers with longitudinal grooves which do not scoop out the sand as lug tyres do. Thin six-ply walls and low pressures make these tyres bulge, and maximum traction can be obtained with as little as 10 lbs per sq in. The next day the remainder of the convoy had to convert to these sand tyres, as they could no longer manage the dunes with standard tyres.

For a while we continued using the bike, with Richard House, the youngest member of the expedition, as scout. Our daily mileage, which had been as low as a fraction of a mile and often no more than eight or ten miles, crept up to about 40 or 50; we were no longer losing time.

The expedition party was now getting into a routine. Reveille was at 3.30 a.m., and departure usually before sunrise. Camp would be made at dusk, so we would be driving and working for about 12 to 14 hours a day.

When we pitched camp it was always the two cooks, Phil Fuller and Richard House, who had regular work to do. Their unenviable job was carried out efficiently and with good humour, despite the many caustic remarks about the origin and ap­pearance of some of their recipes.

Motorised expeditions stand or fall with the quality of maintenance carried out on the transport vehicles. Bill Screaigh, service manager of Ford's largest dealer in Australia, and Laurie Gugiatti, ex-Ampol Trial driver, formed our mechanical team, often working late into the night.

The many such late nights and the generally exhausting conditions began to tell on the men.

The drivers had the worst task. From dawn to dusk their eyes were glued to the ground in front of them dodging sticks, rocks, and holes. The huge sand tyres made steering very heavy, and every clump of spinifex would throw the vehicle off course. Few of our drivers had previous desert experience; fewer still had experience of hundreds of miles of cross-country driving for days — no, weeks —on end at average speeds of three miles an hour.

Story by Mark de GraafThere is a definite technique in driving in sandhill country. It was for that reason that the same drivers were used, for the sake of progress and to save the vehicles. Both mechanics were also permanent drivers, and I watched their in­creasing fatigue with concern.

Our expedition was more than an endurance test, though. It also had a scientific purpose. Two men shared the task of collecting specimens: Phil Fuller, who has been a member of many WA Museum expeditions, collected reptiles; plants and insects were gathered by Dave Williams. Phil and Dave combined on swabbing every second reptile as part of a world-wide Salmonella bacteria research program.

Swabs were taken from each animal and placed in a special con­tainer. The survival rate of similarly obtained swabs has been small in the past, but the Public Health Department was elated with the unusually high survival rate of our swabs. The identification of Salmonella strains assists in the knowledge of epidemics and their origins. Similar work has been carried out in the Kalahari Desert in Africa.

Most of the collecting was done on the hop. At every stop Phil and Dave would collect, but the convoy was never held up by them. At night Phil would roam over the dark, silent dunes, the light of his head-torch bobbing up and down on some distant sand ridge.

Phil and Dave gathered very large collections of insects and botanical specimens from this region, hitherto unexplored by scientists.

Much exciting new material was gathered for anthropologists, who have also not ventured into the area before. Twice members of our expedition made contact with nomads — remnants of a fast-vanishing Aboriginal group.

The desert areas are full of history. We had passed Lake Gregory, the furthest point south of Gregory's Kimberley exploration; Warburton's track was crossed when the cyclone caught us. Godfrey's Tank and Breeden (Breaden) Pool, both mapped by Carnegie in 1896, provided un­forgettable memories for the scout party which located them. To our west lay Joanna Springs, where the final tragic episode of the Wells Expedition took place. Ahead — and now within our reach — was Tobin's grave.

Michael Tobin was a member of Canning's survey party. Near what is now the site of Well 40, but then only an Aboriginal soak, Tobin surprised an Aboriginal drinking at the waterhole. As Tobin fired his gun, a spear struck him. Tobin was buried under a big gum tree on the top of a sand dune a little north-east of the well. The Aboriginal died two miles away.

The following year a marble cross with metal-capped corners was brought up on the back of a camel. As we re-erected the cross, which had fallen over, it was difficult not to reflect on this early tragedy. Who was the murderer and who the murdered?

Historical note: This story needs to be told.

Our slow progress in the early stages had forced the postponement of the meeting with our supply aircraft on the other side of the Great Sandy Desert. The new rendezvous date afforded a little extra time, so another scout party was organised to try and locate well 37, Libral. The historical significance of this place, known as "the haunted well", may be gauged by the fact that two-thirds of the men volunteered to go, when they could have been putting in a day's rest.

After hours of the usual grind at a few miles an hour we found the well. To our disappointment the area had been ravaged by fire, probably a year or so before, and the grove of desert oaks often mentioned by drovers had gone. In the early days of the stock route, drovers Shoesmith and Thompson with some of their camel boys had been speared here. A galvanised iron plate with their names in nail holes was retrieved in 1967 by Commonwealth surveyors.

In 1922, W. McLennon, member of the Locke Oil Expedition, was also speared here, and there was a tree bearing a similar plate to his memory at the well.

Historical note: The location of W. McLennon's death needs to be corrected.

Thus, to drovers and camel-boys the place became known as "the haunted well", and was shunned by whites and Aborigines alike.

But we found the water excellent — with the exception of dozens of bird skulls, which floated in our mugs!

The next day we ran into the first track we had seen since leaving the Kimberley station country. This four-wheel-drive track goes from the Eighty Mile Beach near Wallal Station to Papunya Mission in the Northern Territory. Eight months before we had come in on this track to make a fuel dump; it was with undisguised relief that we saw the familiar red and blue drums in the distance and found our depot intact.

During 1971 we had been busy putting some of our 5,000 gallons of fuel into six depots. This had involved three expeditions, lasting 10 weeks and covering more than 10,000 miles; the fuel was brought in on a trailer which could carry 300 gallons in drums stored near prominent trees in cleared areas and covered with bushes to reduce direct sunlight. A sign was prominently displayed to discourage pilfering, but even so two drums were taken and, despite promises of restitution, not returned.

With fuel tanks full and springs sagging we made our way to the aircraft rendezvous point. The plane appeared, bearing an icy cold watermelon, gift of the thoughtful superintendent of a mining camp 150 miles away. Accompanying this gift from heaven was a Christmas parcel from wives and relatives of all the men.

Our party was reduced by two at this point. Cameraman Alex Mac-Phee, a well-known professional, had to return to take up a contract elsewhere. His work had been excellent, despite a serious knee injury sustained when he fell over, camera and all, in the Ord River. And one of the Aboriginal guides, who had shown his worth in guiding us to wells and in supplying much in­formation about the mythology of the desert dwellers, was flown home in the plane.

Route taken in 1971Soon we were back on our traverse at the familiar three miles an hour. What was supposed to be an easier section than the one just completed turned out to be the very opposite. Although only 135 miles showed on the map between Wells 35 and 24, it took us a week and two days to cover them. Stakes of the small "poverty bush" played havoc with our thin-walled tyres, yet we could not afford to use our eight-plies. The ever higher sandhills demanded maximum traction.

With only four mounted spare covers for five vehicles and up to twenty punctures a day, constant tyre-mending stops were inevitable. Daily mileages dropped as low as ten miles, less than the average distance between wells.

When I organised the expedition I felt that two aspects would require the most attention: mechanics and navigation. Ten years of desert exploration enabled me to feel at home in this country, but taking out a big party necessitated special safeguards. The Aborigines were our safeguard against running out of water or food. They were also a valuable aid to navigation.

Another aid in cross-country work, especially when dodging difficult terrain or locating wells, were the aerial photos brought by Ivor Llewellyn, Chief Photogram-metrist at the WA Lands and Sur­veys Department. Even before our trip, Ivor's homework on his hun­dreds of photos of our route had made him express his concern about the sandhills north of Well 25. His fear was to be realised.

Ivor and I were in the lead vehicle, our task being to try and adhere to a general bearing along our traverse and to find a suitable way over the sandhills to get the party close to a stock route well.

Our system was relatively simple. From the top of a sandhill we would look for a likely crossing on the next crest, a fraction of a mile away. After setting a bearing we would travel across the inter-dune flat to the next ridge and test our assumption. This involved a lot of walking under gruelling conditions. Invariably the crossing would have to be improved by shovel. Ivor would move to the crest of the ridge with photo and compass and work out our next approach while I would take to roadmaking. Any nearby men with energy to spare would pitch in.

In general we tried to keep ahead of the party to maintain at least some pace. To some extent this was possible, because two of the rear vehicles, traytops with 1 1/2-ton loads, would need a special effort to get over the dunes. But the labour of digging sand under the fierce sun took its toll; most of the men lost up to two stone in weight during the trek.

Soon the slow progress, the many punctures and the track making, began to make their dangerous influence felt. Our water supply for the fourteen men was limited by the carrying capacity of the vehicles; all vehicles were overloaded, two dangerously so. At four or five miles per gallon, enormous quantities of fuel, in some cases close to 100 gallons per vehicle, had to be carried. While the wells had water in them, no matter how foul, all was relatively well. But a run of dry wells, com­bined with our slow progress, could make our position critical.

I knew this stretch was to be the test. Once at Well 24 I would be on known ground all the way. The last fifty miles were going to be the most difficult. It was now hotter than ever, with temperatures up to 115 degrees in the shade. The rains had brought flies by the million. Accumulated fatigue was showing and there was sickness. Some men went off their food, while others had difficulty passing water. After our good progress of the week before, morale sank again as daily mileages shrank.

We struck a run of dry wells. Again and again our time-consuming ef­forts in locating the wells were in vain. At last we were down to about two gallons per man. Our Aboriginal guide and I were quietly checking native soaks — to find them dry too. Gradually it dawned on everyone that the situation was deadly serious.

Christmas Day came without fanfare. Some even forgot, and had to be reminded. During the morning everyone spoke to his wife or a relative, using our special Christmas Day radio hook-up — but that had a definite negative effect on our spirits. A few cans of beer, part of the load brought up on the plane, were drunk, strung together and suspended from a small bush to make Christmas decorations. There was nothing else.

We camped that night in a hollow between two sand ridges. As far as the eye could see the country was burnt out. A small blackened tree, about seven feet high, was decorated as a Christmas Tree. In vain we tried to be merry, straining to sing and laugh; our toy trumpets and whistles with their shrill sounds added to the eerie feeling of despair that filled us. Three men spent their Christmas evening on stretchers.

Boxing Day dawned, hot and dry. The drill was the same. Up and down over endless sandhills, counting them, ticking them off on the photos, slowly edging towards the next well. No one mentioned water.

Finally we arrived between two sandhills, and figured that this was where the next well ought to be. As usual there were no obvious signs, and we spread out to check. Sud­denly a shout went up. The well had been located. It was full

The party changed in an instant. Grim, tight-lipped faces lit up. Then it was all hands to clearing away the prickly roly-poly around the well and trough. Someone, who ought to be knighted, thought of slinging a tarpaulin between two vehicles and filling it with water. For hours we lay in the murky fluid, close to heaven.

Bathing in the desertNext morning we came onto a dry lake system. This increased our speed tremendously, even though in our enthusiasm we went off course by about eight miles. The day after that we reached Well 24.

A new problem had arisen in the last few days from our slow progress. Many of the men had obtained their six weeks leave with some difficulty, and since we were again more than a week behind schedule it was obvious a change in plan had to be made. It was decided to head directly for our fuel dump at Lake Cohen in the Central Gibson Desert, so all could complete the traverse.

After obtaining fuel at our depot near Well 22, we reached Lake Cohen back on schedule. The next day the Gunbarrel "highway" was crossed, and later on we passed Alexander Spring, found on John Forrest's 1873 east-west traverse. On the Warburton-Laverton road we met our supply unit, which had pulled a trailer with fuel and water from Laverton.

It was not hard to guess what the men in the supply unit thought when they met this ragged, bearded mob of dirty men. But soon they also looked the part as we travelled south along four-wheel-drive tracks to Rawlinna, nearer the coast. Daily mileages were now in three figures, and no further problems were en­countered. The Eyre Highway was crossed near Cocklebiddy and the target, Twilight Cove on the Great Australian Bight, was reached on schedule.

Somehow it was anti-climactic. Some of the men sat, some swam, some filmed. Then it was time to go home.

Precisely six weeks to the hour of leaving, we were welcomed back to Perth. Including the trip from Perth to Wyndham —our starting point for the overland trek — we had driven, walked, shovelled and cursed our way across 5,500 miles. We had spent $50,000 of our sponsors' money, and only the guides and cameraman were paid.

It was worth it.

Published in Walkabout, June 1972

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 March 2018 10:45

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