ALIVE IN THE DEAD HEART

The French Line began as CGG Party S6507's bulldozed 'Line B' at Dalhousie Springs in South Australia on July 1st 1963 and ended at Poeppels Corner at the tri-State border two months later.    In another month they had reached Eyre Creek.   Once out of the desert the crew stayed together working Queensland's Channel Country for another twelve months, bulldozing hundreds of lesser shotlines.

Other parties were to join in on the oil-seeking frenzy that followed the efforts of the original CGG team and seismic shotlines were subsequently drawn across great swales of the desert.  Pioneer geologist Reg Sprigg estimated the Simpson Desert seismic campaign as responsible for more than 10,000km of shotlines overall.  All trace of most of these crude tracks have long since vanished but the French Line persists.


21ST
IN THE
SIMPSON

DESERT DIGEST

Cashbook and Claypan
Share in the tribulations of the admin manager as he balances the books from his Office-in-a-Blitz

Birdsville or Bust
Learn how French know-how and Australian muscle carved the French Line through the Simpson

East From Oodna
Marvel at the initiative of the early pathfinders who solved the mysteries of the Red Centre

Alive in the Dead Heart
Recollections from the crew who first burst the road through Australia's One True Desert

B-line for Birdsville
Join the CGG veterans on their return journeys to the French Line. Take their tip and travel with experts

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Cafe de Blitz

Guard That Beer, Boy!


Once the pathway into the Simpson was established and construction progress had settled down to about thirty to forty miles in front of the main party, the supply lines became consolidated and routine took over.  Trucks began to roll in with stores and aircraft started bumping down on makeshift claypan strips close by the campsites.  Dumps were set up at strategic locations for petrol, diesel fuel and explosives.  Not the least important was the grog dump.

Above, Pip Dunkley stands guard over the Southwark beer cartons just offloaded as the star attraction for the evening and at left, Tony Pearson makes the best he can of the first 21st Birthday Party held in the desert.  He perches himself on a tabletop in the 'dining car' of the Cafe de Blitz.  Note the carefully crafted 21st 'key' presented to Tony by his mates, the handiwork of the CGG mechanics.

Desert Barflies Take Over


What to do in the middle of a desert as barren as the Simpson when night falls?  Only one place was open and that was the bar in the Cafe de Blitz, so named because it was located necessarily in the dining room of the kitchen trailer - the sole caravan with refrigeration.  The steel beer cans of the era cooled down reasonably well in the salt-brine fridges if given a chance but generally the first few cases off the back of the truck got only a few hours to chill before the most impatient thirsts among the men demanded a beer.

There was a widely-held belief among the oil-workers that if you were thirsty you could instantly get a can of beer cold enough to drink off the back of the supply truck that brought it into camp.  The method used most popularly was to find a sock (not easy when the chosen footwear was thongs) and load the can into the toe of the sock, then VOILA!   two swings around your head and the beer was ready for swigging.

Next they'll Drink Canada Dry


As if posing for the folks back home, the drinkers put on sober expressions, but having nearly exhausted the beer ration for the night they are merely trying for the next round to catch the attention of the bar manager, mine host Kevin Murphy, who by default was the first publican for the Simpson Desert.

Second from right in the front row is Ken Charlton from Banff in Canada.  Ken was one of two Canadians found labouring on the roads for Diamantina Shire Council and press-ganged in to working on the French Line.  The other (not in the photo) was Bob Seaman who stayed on in Australia and became the roadie for Jamaican pianist Winifred Atwell and her troupe of travelling entertainers.  Bob packed her pick of pianos around Australia and overseas for some years afterwards, up to her retirement.

Party Chief Soaks up the Local Culture


CGG Party Chief Jean Tixeront holds the floor in the Cafe de Blitz but fails to impress his guest, a ringer off Kamaran Downs cattle station.  Tix has invited the ringer for a drink but judging by the bewildered look on the ringer's face, the goings on the bar are too much for him to comprehend.

Most nights after dinner, if there was beer left in stock, the tables were cleared on the dining room side of the caravan and the area was transformed into a bar.   It was a cash-free camp so Kevin kept book for the drinkers so they could tick up their tally until pay-day at months-end, when he would make the appropriate deductions.

Come and Join the Party


CGG's Line B formed the straight section of the French Line from Dalhousie and extended 19km past Camp 9, just short of the Erabena turnoff.  The end of Line B is seen on maps as the 'bump' where the French Line takes another direction for the 80km stage to Poeppels Corner.  It was decided by the French Chef de Mission Bernard Finzi to hold a party welcoming his successor, Jean Tixeront and celebrating the completion of the southern Simpson seismic survey.

A firm called South Australian Air Taxis (SAATAS) had secured the aerial support contract for the Simpson oil search.    It was owned in partnership by Kron Nicholas, now a senior pilot with Qantas and Dick Cavill, who also had the Caterpillar earthmoving concession for South Australia.  Kron joined the fray in his C210 and flew Trisha Wright up from Adelaide to be with her husband Graham for the occasion.

The End-o'-Line Party at Camp 9


Graham Wright was already on site when the party was planned and brought across Pip Dunkley from CGG Party S6509 in one of the company's other Cessnas.  Kron is smoking the cheroot in the centre of the photo while Graham and Trisha are seen in the right foreground of the group.

It was the evening of August 7th, 1963.  Kent Longmate had his record player cranked up and the honeyed tones of Joan Baez filtered hauntingly across the gathering outside the Cafe de Blitz.  The tune was "What have they done to the Rain?"  All of the survivors of that group remember the occasion of the party at the end of Line B, due in some part to the camaraderie of each other's company but mostly engendered by the solemnity of the Baez song and its enduring message.

The Poshest Affair Ever in the Simpson


A white tablecloth dinner on the French Line!   What a preposterous thought.   Bernard Finzi, the CGG Party Chief had it in mind to reward the men who had sacrificed more than some personal liberty and so he splashed out with the closest he could get to a posh dinner in the Simpson.  There is no doubt there have been better turned out affairs since, but no one can discount the virtue of this pompous occasion as the first deserving one in the desert.

Whenever I see the photos on the web or read the stories of the travelwriters waxing lyrical over champagne and a linened-cardtable setup on a dune with perhaps a dickey-suited waiter serving, with a spinifex clump at ankle-side, I am reminded of that night in 1963 in the middle of Australia.  I do think our posh night was better organised than all of those other scenes I've looked at since or can imagine.

Some Mothers Do Have 'Em


Bluey Wells has been skull-dragged by wellwishers moments before from this scene on the claypan at CGG Camp 9.  Bluey was the dozer driver interviewed by the Leyland Bros three years after he pushed his Caterpillar D7 right across the Simpson Desert from Dalhousie to the Eyre Creek thus unintentionally blowing out of consideration their carefully-constructed myth of being the first to drive across the Simpson.

This day dawning was not one of Bluey's brightest for it was the aftermath of the great Line B celebration party.   This was the wreckage on the claypan at Camp 9 that the CGG seismic workers and their guests faced on that morning in 1963, so ably captured by Tankred Mueller, one of our senior juggies.

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