FROM THE ARCHIVES

John Thompson continues his account of the return to the Simpson Desert in July 1998 of the survivors of the Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) crew that built the French Line 35 years before.  An Australian soldier, John was a member of the Occupation Forces in Japan after WWII and stayed on to fight in the Korean War that followed.

Upon Thommo's return to Civvy Street, he drove trams on the old Sydney network and in a career turnabout, suddenly went 'bush' to South Australia - working numerous outback cattle and sheep stations and perhaps uniquely, could claim to have worked in some capacity at all the SA Corners (Haddons, Camerons, Poeppels etc) except those two on the WA side of South Australia.  Now he was about to revisit one of them, Poeppels Corner.


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DESERT DIGEST

Cashbook and Claypan
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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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Thommo's Desert Report (Continued)

Strangers Along the Track


Along this stretch of the 'Line we passed a Japanese walker crossing the desert from west to east.   He camped with us that Saturday night and told how previously he had walked from Broome to Adelaide.   His support party had placed caches of food and water along the 'Line at about his daily walking distance.

That night the members of CGG spoke to a group of Rover people about the desert as it was when we crossed 35 years ago.    The main difference for me was that now we were passing through in a couple of days whereas we took three months on the survey.    This allowed us to walk over the desert and inspect, explore and feel its moods.   Now, we did not see the wildlife and changing conditions that happened every day.   I'm not grousing, because it was another type of trip, just different.

The next day Sunday we caught up with the Japanese walker who had left camp early in the morning and I walked a short way with him.    He spoke good English and told me he came from Hiroshima and as I lived in that area around 1950, I told him a little about the country as it was then.

Getting Our Desert Legs Once More


A short while after this we met a man [David Mason - Editor] walking from Byron Bay to Shark Bay, the widest part of Australia from east to west.    Three camels (a male and two females) accompanied him.    They carried his water and food.

During my conversation with him it came out we were both from Canberra and he asked me to contact his girlfriend when I got home and report that he was fit and well and missed her.    I did so and evidently he had been in touch with her as she told me one of the camels had given birth to a calf a day or so after we passed him.

At this point in the crossing I have been interviewed on film three times by the moviemakers.   The Rig Road joined the 'Line again about 70kms from Colsons Track. The sand hills now were much higher and redder.   As I approached each one, anticipation and tension rose in me as I tried to select the right speed and gear, so that I could sail over the top but sometimes, I had to make another attempt.    We arrived at the Knolls early that afternoon and set up camp.   They appeared to be low gypsum hills about a km south of the 'Line.    Tankred cooked tea, an excellent meal of frankfurts, mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and peas.

Saved by the Amateur Mechanics


About 20kms out from the Knolls the bottom bolt of the right rear wheel shock absorber broke off.    When I heard the clanking I stopped, but not knowing how far back it had broken, I thought it pointless going back for it in the sand.   So I drove with as much care as I could until we reached Poeppels Corner.   The corner is north of the survey line so we now have left the French Line.

While everyone was walking around and taking photos of the replica of Poeppels survey post, one of the Rover drivers heard about my broken shocker and said he saw the bolt lying on the track and picked it up.    After thanking him, Tankred again brought out his welder and repaired the shocker.   I found that in trying to replace it I didn't have the strength to compress it and place it in the brackets until Greg Parish, the cameraman came along and replaced it with only a little difficulty.

First Religious Service in the Simpson Desert?


Leaving the Corner we drove alongside a dry salt lake for quite a distance and near the end of it we turned east and crossed the lake.    That night, Sunday, Dean Drayton gave a church service and a reading from Pooh Bear, 'Lost in a Sandpit'.

Monday 6th July, a fortnight on the track and on the way to the next camp at Eyre Creek saw five camels but they quickly disappeared over the sand hills.    Also met up with two walkers pulling an ingeniously constructed cart and harness.   They were going to Poeppels Corner.    We were now out of the desert and on the edge of the Channel Country where cattle were grazing, so the flies outnumbered us by about 13 million to one.   On reflecting about deserts and open spaces, I feel more comfortable and safer when I can see the horizon, the sun, the stars and the moon rather than forest or thick bush where there is a feeling of being hemmed in, oppressed and unable to breathe.   A short stint in a forest marvelling at massive trees is okay, but I am soon looking for a way out.    Distant tree-covered hills in a blue eucalyptus oil-haze is also okay.

Pushing Through to Birdsville


Leaving Eyre Creek for Birdsville was the day we tackled Big Red, known as the highest and last sand hill on the eastern edge of the desert.    It had taken nine days from Sydney to reach it.    I had never seen it before.   When surveying earlier we moved north along Eyre Creek to the Bedourie area.   A lot of drivers managed Big Red, but alas I was not one of them although I gave it two tries.   Like some others I took the low road.   On the way to Birdsville we collected rocks as we were going to erect a cairn with a plaque on the top, commemorating the construction of the French Line and introduction of the Land Rover into Australia.   The Diamantina Shire provided the cement and sand for the job.

Dined at the hotel that night.   The hotel had doubled in size since my last visit 35 years ago.   The camping ground was a surprise;  the shower block contained about 24 shower cubicles with plenty of hot artesian water.    During the night misty rain fell.    I am concerned about the rain because I am sleeping in the open and would have difficulty drying my bedding on the move.

The Dedication of the CGG Cairn at Birdsville


Wednesday was overcast.    All the Rovers re-enacted yesterday's emergence from the Simpson along the road a few kms out of town, where the cameras from Channel 9 were set up to achieve the best shots.   Dean Drayton unveiled the plaque and the mayor of Diamantina Shire, David Brook, said a few words about the French Line and how it meant greater prosperity for the area, with the number of tourists travelling through.

In the afternoon Tankred and I visited the local museum.   The TV camera crew was recording the tour of the displays, so we figured in that show as well.   If any great amount of the footage recorded is shown, all our faces will become well known.

On the Way Home


Driving from Birdsville to Windorah in the afternoon were three vehicles, the two Discos with Kevin, Tankred and myself returning to Sydney (Editor: Dave Kesby and Dean Drayton decamped from Birdsville via The Flying Padre's plane, as they had flights to join for overseas).

John and Margaret came with us in their Toyota as far as the Newcastle turnoff.   All the others made their separate ways home.

We drove through a stretch of road that a storm passed over during the night.   There was about 30kms of boggy road that was fairly risky driving through;  the vehicles did not like it as they kept trying to slide off the road and park for the day.   It lasted until we reached the T-junction with the bitumen road between Windorah and Bedourie.   That night we stayed in the Windorah hotel as the camping ground was under water in places.

Summary - We Missed the Desert Animals


Thursday up early.   The country was awash and the clover and grasses were a bright green stretching as far as you could see, continuing all the way to Bourke and beyond.    Just before reaching Quilpie we were stopped by the Army.   They were on an exercise searching for their enemy.   After watching their antics for a while we pushed on to Quilpie.   The wildlife was prolific: kangaroos, wallabies, eagles, kites, wild pigs, foxes but no rabbits.   Apparently calicivirus had knocked them around.   Camped the night at the Byrock pub camping ground.

Another early start Friday.   Arrived in Sydney at about 7.30pm, 16 days for the trip.   All that is left are the memories of the wonderful people who accompanied me and the desert itself.   Special mention to Kevin Murphy who organised it all.    Thank you everyone for a wonderful trip.  John Thompson, Canberra ACT 1998.

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Alive in the
Dead Heart 
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Thommo's Desert Report The BeeGees Page
Coles Express Picks On a Pensioner The Kid From Towra Point
Bulldozing a Desert Trans National Causeway
Signwriter for the Simpson The Long Haul
Simpson Desert Birdlife French Line Circa 1979

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