Meet the oilworkers who challenged the Simpson Desert, carving their 440km access road now known as the French Line.    Join with them as they bulldozed their desert path to nowhere.    The search for oil in Australia brought the first of the oil explorers, the Brisbane-based Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) and they began attacking the Simpson in the manner they had previously employed in their successful conquest of the Sahara Desert.

Hopes were high that they would repeat the dose.   The CGG seismic survey team and their heavy articulated mobile barracks swarmed across the dunes to test the Great Artesian Basin prospect for their Delhi/SANTOS farmout partner, French Petroleum.



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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Simpson Desert Office

Nerve Centre of the Oil Campaign

Blitzwagon Medical and Radio HQ Pty Ltd

The French Line is now the springboard into the Simpson Desert for legions of recreational drivers and academics, all with serious business in mind in some part of Australia's 'One True Desert.'   But back in early 1963 the famous access road wasn't even part of the plan for French Petroleum.    Who would have imagined it possible to even enter the forbidding desert with cumbersome vehicles like these and expect to get them over to the other side?

Oilfield Caterers contracted to provide the dormitory, office and mess caravans and once into the dunes it would be up to the drivers of the ex-Army Chev 4x4 Blitzwagons to haul the camp from one site to the next.   A daunting task.

Rigging the Radio Aerial

It was a combination of four key elements that proved the turning point.    The radio link to the RFDS provided backup, the use of 4WD vehicles gave access, the worldwide thirst for oil was the impetus and finally, the expertise and enthusiasm of the French oilmen and their Australian helpers saw them through.

Conventional seismic survey crews worked three weeks and had the fourth week off - hardly practical in such a remote location.    CGG planned their missions around the ability to have men out in the field every day for twelve weeks.   Half of Sunday was maintenance day and the afternoon was free.    In this environment it was essential for the safety of the party to have radio contact with the outside world.

Cooking the Books in the Desert

In addition to accounting chores and paying the mens' wages into their hometown bank accounts, office manager Kevin Murphy was responsible for the health and well-being of the party;    in such difficult and isolated terrain it was vital that the campsite have a central radio and first aid post.    The Royal Flying Doctor Service supplied one of their comprehensive medical chests for Kevin to maintain and with radio contact assured, he was ready for most of any possible emergencies.

Fellow workers Kent Longmate and Peter Leathem check pay details with Kevin (seated).    Transfers were effected each month into several banks in four States from this desk.    The details were read out over the RFDS net in the form of telegrams that authorised the movement of the wages from the Head Office account in Brisbane.   It worked a treat but every now and then there was a hiccup at the other end.

Hanging Out the Washing

Camplife in the desert meant all aspects of city-living were missed dreadfully by the urban cowboys.    The evenings were free yet there were no movies, no television, no mates over.    The caterer's brief was hot meals morning and night plus bed and beverages, nothing else.   Yet the personal chores kept coming for the boys living in isolation.   Noel Gibson, the cook's offsider, here handles the washing for himself and cook Reg Lee, hanging it out as he would in his home backyard.    No, it is not the first Hills Hoist in Australia.

Back in 1939, the explorer/geologist Professor C.T. Madigan tagged the previously unnamed desert he was about to cross after his benefactor, the Adelaide industrialist and washing machine manufacturer Alan Simpson.   It was Madigan who reasoned no person would ever drive a motor vehicle across.   History has recorded it was Madigan's pupil, Reg Sprigg, who would lay bare that proposition of Madigan's when in 1962 Sprigg drove right across with his family on board in a second-hand 4WD.

A scant ten months after Reg came through, the CGG seismic explorers and heavy-equipment challengers of the Simpson Desert dunes began putting into regular use two Simpson washing machines.   These simple, geared cold tubs were installed in the ablutions caravan to help freshen up our clothes.   Whether they did any real cleaning is debatable, but they quickly dyed the washing-up water a deep "Desert Red" with their worrying agitator action.   It was not until January 2003 the CGG veterans woke up to the connection between philanthropist Alan Simpson's company, the washing machines he made and the desert that bore his name.

Claypan Camping Ground

John Blaney-Murphy's photo captures the CGG 'village' on one of its temporary campsites in the Simpson.   In 1963 it was new ground for all contenders.   There is simply no other desert on the globe like the Simpson;   it is the only place within a populated nation that remains uninhabited for over one hundred years - the native Wangkanguru having abandoned it in 1899.   And there's that clothesline again.

Few of today's French Line travellers can imagine that almost fifty years ago a bunch of Australian oilworkers skulldragged a camp of this size over the 1100 sand dunes of the Simpson in a seismic and construction mission of less than three months and did their jobs with not a day off.    Spare a thought, those who travel across in three days of air-conditioned comfort, for those CGG intrepids before you in their trucks and Lannies who crossed up to sixty dunes a day out and back to camp in the course of their drilling, shooting and recording work.

"8QTY Simpson Desert Calling the Royal Flying Doctor"

The CGG Party had a mobile 25w PYE SSB HF radio throughout the Simpson campaign, call sign 8QTY.   Contemporary radio operators will have less than fond memories of 8QTY telegram traffic testing their patience and jamming up the network with daily long-winded technical messages, interspersed with bursts of character-by-character words in French, incomprehensible to all who took part or listened in.

West of Poeppels Corner, when CGG were on Alice Springs RFDS base, the CGG call sign was expressed phonetically QUEEN TARE YOKE, but then a few miles east of Poeppels, the Charleville culture insisted the call sign be modernised to QUEBEC TANGO YANKEE.

Pip Dunkley in the Chair

Pip Dunkley was the office manager in the Pedirka/Hamilton section of CGGs Centralian oil survey pursuits and just as the challenge of the Simpson was to be mounted, he was recalled to a WA party.  On the Spring Creek delta he handed over to Kevin Murphy, the only employee CGG ever hired from out of Sydney.

When Poeppels Corner was reached in the first DIRECT crossing from Dalhousie, CGG rewarded Pip for his services to that point by flying him in for the party that preceded the 'Long Haul.'   More on that subject will be reported in future missives.


Coles Express Picks on a Pensioner .....
Try the  "with Malice a'Forecourt?"  link and read what they did


Cashbook and
or Bust 
East from
Alive in the
Dead Heart 
B-Line for

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