Cattle stations on both sides of Australia's Simpson Desert have long enjoyed reputations as the premier cattle-fattening properties in the land and stock is trucked great distances to take advantage of even short periods of agistment when market conditions are favourable.    Rainfall is either low or non-existent, but it is the floodplains of the Finke in the west and the Diamantina in the east, carrying the overflow from northern monsoonal rains, that promotes the rapid growth of the saltbush and spinifex fodder known locally as 'dried herbage'.

It is common in all seasons for station owners to allow stock to roam far into the Simpson in search of feed, well out of their 'runs', especially when rainsqualls have got lost and collected on the distant claypans, thus increasing the range of foraging cattle.  Stock losses are high when cattle get marooned a long way from water, but the chance for quick and free fattening is worth the risk for cattlemen.



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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Fat Cattle Country

Grazing on Dried Herbage

Patrolling the Waterwell at Kamaran Downs

During the 1880's remote parts of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland were leased to aspiring pastoralists who had followed in the footsteps of Australian explorers Sturt and Mitchell.    Both had reported good stock feed conditions in their travels.  Cunningham and Gregory had noted promising native grasses in their forays down the Queensland rivers, too.  However the lasting benefits of dried herbage that germinated after good rains, prospered and capably delivered rich nutrients long after life seemed to have left it, was yet to be fully realised.

In order to sustain these early enterprises, hundreds of bores were sunk along the back country stock routes by governments eager to foster pastoral endeavours in their regions.  There was nothing in it for these governments in sinking the wells except perhaps license fees, for in those days no taxation was paid by people living off the land.

Permanent Water at Dalhousie Springs

Cattlemen crowded in to leases in and around South Australia's Lake Eyre and verging into the Simpson Desert in the north of the state.  Famous lessees of the past included Brooks, Raglass, Hagan, George, Sandford, Bagot, Crombie, Kidman and the Scobie Bros.

The reliability of their water supply determined the farmers' chances of success or failure.  There were only two permanent waterholes in over a 692,000 hectare spread of country, so they were heavily dependent upon the government bores.  On the western side of the desert lay the magnificent permanent waters of Dalhousie Springs, by the Finke floodplain.  The other was at Kaliduwarry above Annandale ruins on the Eyre Creek to the east of the desert.  Not much of a prospect to keep dozens of businesses and hundreds of thousands of head of stock going!

Eyre Creek Near Old Alton Downs

Jack Gaffney had charge of the Alton Downs run.  Of all the surviving cattle runs on the Birdsville side, Alton Downs was placed the furthest into the Simpson, with the homestead built right by the Eyre Creek.  I first came to know Jack when my seismic survey party Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG), the French Line construction team, were at our Camp 9 site - still short of Poeppels Corner.   I had arranged to buy a body of beef from Jack over the 8XR AIM Hospital radio chat session one morning.   The cooks had taken our last fresh meat two weeks before from Rex Lowe of Mt Dare and since, heavy rain had allowed the Finke to swell and cut us off from the west.

Considering the bulldozers were only twenty miles ahead of the CGG campsite, I had a long drive after that point was reached guided only by the sight of the surveyors' wispy strips of yellow or red plastic tape they positioned periodically, knee-high and attached to whatever they could find, like a gidgee stem or a clump of spinifex.  Thus did they mark the way forward for the French Line.

Stockyarding Cattle at Kamaran Downs

Alton Downs was isolated in that spot but Jack Gaffney took advantage in being able to loose his stock readily and for long periods high up into the northern Simpson between the sand dunes to feed on the rich, free grazing.  His dependence on the regular tipping of the moody Mulligan or the Georgina into the Eyre Creek was total.  Nor was the practice without risk, for many head straying too far from Alton Downs' water tanks were lost to thirst.

That trip I overnighted with Jack and before I set off back along the Creek to find my lifesaving row of surveyors' plastic markers, he offered me a full breakfast of steak.  This was a repeat dose of what we'd had for dinner the night before and it was too much for me but I made the mistake of asking Jack if he had any cornflakes.  This met with a howl of derision.  There were two things on a menu most despised by Jack - one item was offal and the other, he roared scornfully, was 'dried herbage'.  He likened city breakfast foods to the staple diet of his cattle herd and learning my lesson, I've used the deprecating term ever since myself.

First Fence East, Out of the Simpson

At first, CGG Party S6507 worked a three month seismic exploration 'mission' on South Australia's Hamilton and Mt Dare stations in the west and around Andado over the border in the Northern Territory.  Thereafter most of our contact was with the families and workers on the cattle properties on the Birdsville side.  Pandie Pandie and Clifton Hills were in CGG Party S6509's bailiwick and I passed through there only once on another trip, a mercy dash from CGG's Camp 13 through old Alton Downs on my way to Birdsville AIM Hospital with a patient.  I turned at Andrewilla Waterhole (the New Alton Downs was to be established there in 1968 following Jack's death) and drove by the bed of the Diamantina past Clifton and on to Pandie.

On another occasion I took the sensible shortcut, old Alton Downs through Karrathunka Waterhole, which bypassed Pandie as well on the way to Birdsville.  As it happened, new Alton Downs at Andrewilla was washed away in the 1974 floods and I haven't seen its new location.  CGG personnel were to spend a lot of time on stations such as Glengyle, Sandringham, Kamaran Downs, Monkira and the deserted Dubbo Downs and Annandale ruins in the months to come and struck up quite an amicable social discourse with the proprietors and staff of the occupied stations in leisure moments.

The Annandale Cattle Station Ruins - 1963

The possibility that my Andrewilla tracks, made before CGG's 1963 Christmas leave, were those that confused the Page Family a scant two weeks later, caused me much concern.  Such a round-trip was not one that a local would have driven.  It was a bit of a nonsense.  I have since established that Ernie Page could not have got closer than thirty or so miles from the path I took in my LandRover that day.  The tragedy had been cast as an indiscretion of seismic workers all the same, by the metropolitan press, so the finger did point at me for a time.

The Birdsville Track and the Channel Country of Queensland are regions that have seen more than enough tragic perishes.  There is stark evidence of many economic disasters as well.  Annandale and then Dubbo Downs and now possibly Kamaran Downs, have become outstations of another cattle station, in this event in favour of Glengyle.

Sidney Kidman's Tree of Knowledge at Glengyle

Thirty years later I returned to the Channel Country and learned of some extra reshuffling in the district, properties broken up, old acquaintances passed on and new faces on the scene.   I was drawn to Glengyle all those years later to take some photos of Sir Sidney Kidman's 'Tree of Knowledge'.   It was the property destined to be the nucleus of the Kidman empire when he took it on in 1891.

Glengyle is listed on the National Trust and if Sir Sidney got his inspiration to plan his strategies while camping beneath that very tree, I thought it was good enough for me to shelter under it too and I took it as a bonus that others recognised the worth of his acquisitions in such a public way.   This planning of his led to the ownership of a chain of cattle stations from South Australia to the Gulf of Carpentaria that is without parallel.   Today, many of his original purchases remain in the Kidman family empire.

The Bedourie Cricket Team - 1964

There at Glengyle I spied a group of farm hands in the machinery shed and approached them to see if there were any in their number who remembered CGG from those days and I was pleasantly surprised when a bloke came forward and said he played cricket against us once.

I whipped out some photos of the two teams that were taken outside Bedourie's Royal Hotel in 1964 and sure enough, my informant spotted himself amidst the Bedourie side.  Amongst that cricket team were some local names to conjure with; Jack Gaffney was captain and there was a 'B. Condon' (a relative of Joe Condon the Bedourie publican?)   Norm Portch the Birdsville publican played, plus Bill Ritchie, a Crombie, a McIntyre and John Hardingham, the local BP agent.


Coles Express Picks on a Pensioner .....
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Cashbook and
or Bust 
East from
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