BIRDSVILLE OR BUST

Birdsville is Australia's last remaining frontier town, straddled at the head of the famed Birdsville Track and the eastern gateway to the enigmatic Simpson Desert.   Marooned by floodwaters for up to three months every year, the people of the tiny Channel Country outpost have long been reliant on air transport to get supplies through.   As a consequence of its importance the airstrip occupies prime territory right in the middle of the CBD.

A dimunitive stone cairn dedicated to Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) Party S6507, builders of the French Line in 1963, stands opposite the Birdsville pub.    It has on one shoulder, the rock cluster for explorer Madigan (1939) and on the other side, the stony edifice for almost-local Colson (1936).    Both neighbouring structures were built by the cairn-king Reg Sprigg.   The Victorian LandRover Club (LROCV) saw fit to honour the CGG workers who opened up the Simpson to scientific and recreational travel via their French Line, in positioning the tribute between the cairns of the more famous explorers.  Indicative of how time is overtaken by technology, the URL shown "aaa.com.au/simpson_desert" has long been inoperable.


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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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Aloft Over Birdsville

Liftoff for the Flying Padre

Thumbs up for the CGG Cairn


Rob Rutzow, the outback Flying Padre and bush pilot, circles Birdsville airstrip in his Cessna. His passengers, Dave Kesby and Rev Dr Dean Drayton, have on this July day in 1998 emerged from a jaunt across the French Line from Dalhousie in South Australia.   Bound for Broken Hill and transfers for Sydney, both adventurers flew on from Mascot within 24hrs to appointments in different parts of the USA.    Dave indicates his approval of the CGG cairn which moments before been dedicated by Dr Drayton.

Perhaps more exuberant at leaving Birdsville is this section of CGG crew, fresh from building the French Line in 1963 and shown in the photograph above in their chartered DC3.   Three of the men up front in the older picture are among the group waving up at the Cessna in the sidebar photo, some 35 years later.

Birdsville's Popular Outback Airstrip


Although originally on offer to both airlines, the Channel Country route became the task of TAA to develop from scratch.    They ran a fortnightly schedule between Brisbane and Adelaide until years later it was sufficiently profitable for Ansett-ANA to become interested in taking over the route.    Press reports at the time suggested that TAA fought hard to retain their rights to the consternation of the Government of the day.

The DC3s continued in service for many years but with the coming of the oilmen it was seen that the traffic load called for more modern, cost-effective aircraft.    The Viscounts and Electras of the fleet required more runway than Birdsville had to offer, so Fokker Friendships were suggested.

Somewhat bizarrely, a small party of interested locals (the policeman Eric Sammon, BP agent John Hardingham and Adria Downs' Bill Brook) accompanied me in pacing off the runway in order to convince TAA and DCA that Birdsville was all right for the first of CGG's Fokker charters.   At the northern end we simply compared notes of our counts and reported the average.   Birdsville was duly authorised.

The first flight out on the proving run was filled to the brim with holidaying CGG passengers in late 1963 and all on board were relieved when the lumbering Dutch aircraft rose slowly but safely above the low range of sand dunes at the northern boundary of the strip.

TAA's Fortnightly Channel Country Service


The route had been a simple mail run from its inception, with more produce than passengers.    As CGG edged closer to Birdsville, the border town fast became the staging post for the Simpson Desert operation and it was well on the way to becoming the base for myriad other oil teams who were to pour into the area subsequently.

TAA rated the Channel Country flight as their most arduous in the grid.    Management obligingly excused every pair of hosties who served the route after one single return journey, from any further Birdsville missions.    After all, it was a 14-day slog - Brisbane and all stations west to Birdsville, thence on to the Birdsville track properties and Adelaide.   The outbound leg took a week and then they'd return the way they came, for another week of up-and-down flying.    On some of the hops they'd no sooner get airborne than they were preparing to descend for an approach on another isolated outback airstrip.

DC3s were not pressurised and in the warmer months pilots could only manage the same altitude as scrub turkeys.   The turbulence was severe and unremitting.    Many inflight injuries were sustained and air-sickness was common among crew and passengers.    Depending upon demand, crews removed vacant seats to create room for cargo and lashed the spare seats fast where they could.    Cargo working free of restraining netting often caused problems for the hosties and hapless passengers as it moved around the cabin.

Trap for the Unwary (or, Nice One Edward)


Great parallel rows of 200km long sand dunes are commonplace in the 'Red Heart' of Australia but nowhere found more predictable than in the Simpson Desert.    However, before anyone could bet 'London to a brick' on it, as the saying goes, the theory that it is impossible to get lost in this most orderly of deserts because you only need to count the sandhills, is dashed with the evidence of this remarkable photo.    It is the U-turn sand dune.   Two sandhills converging into none would utterly confuse the most diligent of dune counters.

Yet it is precisely this point of view that was advanced by the journalist Edward Stokes in his article on the Simpson Desert that appeared in the respected journal  'Australian Geographic'   (page 69, Oct/Dec '93). Stokes reflected,

'Walking away from camp in the Simpson - holds fewer risks than elsewhere in central Australia.   The sand ridges are so geometrically ordered that it would be difficult to get lost.   Count the ridges.    Turn.   Count them on the way back.    Find camp.'

Tough Target for the Desert Mums


Four very determined mums have emerged in Birdsville from an amazing feat - a walk of 430kms across the Simpson Desert.  The "Desert Mums", Susan Bartell aged 44, Margot Burn 43, Carolyn McLean 42 and Debbie Shiell 36, set out on foot from Dalhousie on May 5th 2006 in support of the National Breast Cancer Foundation.  Their goal was to raise funds to aid breast cancer research and to further publicise "early detection awareness".   The Desert Mums walked the exact route taken by Denis Bartell in 1984 when he was the first person to go across alone after the CGG surveyor Roy Elkins had done so 21 years before.   Both walked the width of the Simpson, however Bartell was unique in that he was entirely unaided in his later feat while our man Roy had the benefit of an accompanying vehicle and the whole CGG team following 30kms behind him.

Opinion among the surviving CGG veterans is still divided as to the true identity of CGG's surveyor, however there is no dispute he walked every yard.  Roy, some query?   Elkins, they ask?   It remains a mystery for those who had rare contact if any, with a colleague working way out in front of the main party and bunking in the remote "fly camp".   Others with memories possibly distorted by time say Elkins' wooden leg was hardly a handicap because he was able to take his Simpson stroll in short, daily stages over three months' duration, with Sundays off.

Barely days out of the desert herself and having worked hard in return for sponsor generosity, Susan Bartell reported with enthusiasm,

"We are awaiting the tally but I think it stands at possibly $115,000.   The walk was amazing and we are still amazed at how stunning the terrain is.  Dry, but stunning."

Australian Geographic 'Adventurer of the Year' Lauded


The Australian Adventurers' Magazine Australian Geographic in promoting Denis Bartell, once wrote in a sweeping statement:

"It might be said that Denis knows the Simpson Desert better than any white man alive or dead."
Not wishing to detract from his reputation, I suggest however that the magazine could add to Denis' and other travelling readers' knowledge if it were to sponsor an indepth search of the history of the Simpson Desert.  Then they might uncover worthy accounts among the thousands of oilmen and women on the ground who followed CGG when we opened up the desert to allcomers, a generation before Mr. Bartell.   CGG's role was in all the papers at the time.  There are many stories of hell and happiness experienced by these modern day explorers worth recall today, but with too few of them left to tell their tales, the task will eventually fall to the historians.

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LINK TO THESE ARTICLES FROM THIS PAGE

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Pilots of the
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Coles Express Picks On a Pensioner The Kid From Towra Point
Bulldozing a Desert Trans National Causeway
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Simpson Desert Birdlife French Line Circa 1979

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