It took one hundred years of colonial history before a handful of European explorers spent more than a passing interest in the great wastes of central Australia that we now know as the Simpson Desert.    For that interest, we can thank the drive for pastoral conquest.   Over another hundred years on, the zealots of the National Museum in Canberra apparently sought to make some objective statements about those inhospitable dunefields and devoted generous space to the task.

The Museum displays concentrated on the native fringe-dwellers and their prolific trading of pituri, the volatile alkaloid used to endure fatigue, hunger and thirst during long distance travel.    Archibald Meston, the first Protector of Aboriginals, further described pituri as a strong soporific, ensuring "long and sound sleep" - a use at odds with the views exhibited in the Museum.   Subsequent to Reg Spriggs' epic drive in 1962, the construction of the French Line itself by Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) has been termed the single most significant event to occur in the Simpson, leading to the ecologically-neutral opening up of the desert to all and sundry.    Nor was it the oil men and women who toiled through the dunes for years following access who got the Museum nod to commemorate desert travel, but the "Comalco Camel".



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 Crossings

Living Quarters for CGG in the Simpson Desert - 1963

Jean Laherrere  from the French group TOTAL (CFP), fresh out of the Sahara, heard about the prospects in Australia and became involved.  The CGG men he ultimately set to work were to labour along its length three months without a break to carve the thoroughfare now known as the French Line through to Birdsville and in so doing set a record of European endurance in the desert thus far unsurpassed.

These workers were the first drivers of heavy trucks and semi-trailers to successfully tackle the dunes and the first to push motor vehicles of any description through the South Australian side of the desert, by now the popular path of choice for thousands of 4WD enthusiasts.

Tour of Inspection by French Petroleum

Rene Quin of French Petroleum came up from Adelaide on a tour of inspection with geophysicist Dean Drayton, Delhi/SANTOS CEO John Klug and Adelaide Advertiser reporter Peter Michelmore in September 1963 and met the CGG party west of the Eyre Creek.

Sir Thomas Playford, the South Australian Premier, took the wheel himself and drove up to witness first hand the opening up of the Simpson only days after the Quin party reached the CGG camp.    By January 1st 1964 no more than sixty people had made the crossing.   In the ensuing two years of intensive exploration in the Simpson Desert the number of oil company working-men (and -women) increased substantially.

The French Line Opens up the Desert to Everyone

The French Line proved to be a vital means of access and egress route for up to 2000 workers of Beach Petroleum, Reef Oil and Western Mining, during which they constructed a further 10,000km of shotlines through the desert.

Again, heavy trucks, trailers and rigs were able to traverse and shift extraordinary loads along this amazing road, the French Line.    It survives today as a surveyed straight line ridgetop to ridgetop, otherwise the swathes and claypans, even the runups and runsdown have twisted and turned with use and abuse for it to be unrecognisable whenever those few first privileged to see it freshcut, the veterans of the original CGG survey party, make a return pilgrimage.

Warburton and Winnecke Missing From the Simpson Annals

While Reg Sprigg gives credit in his map to Peter Egerton-Warburton (1886) and Charles Winnecke (1883), plotting their paths to seriously connect them with the exploration of the Simpson Desert, Winnecke's wanderings in the district can be summarised as merely traversing Lake Eyre to the Hay River after trailing along the eastern side of both landmarks.   And Winnecke passed nearby to Poeppels Corner four years after surveyor Poeppel and shortly before Larry Wells came out to fix Poeppel's error of declination.   Neither crossed.

Of this heralded duo, Warburton is the least likely to be remembered kindly in the history books.   He is the co-discoverer of most of the mound springs on the western perimeter of the Great Artesian Basin from around 1858, but like many ex-British Army types who sought to explore his new land for personal kudos, Warburton could not conceal his disdain for the aboriginals charged with leading him around the countryside.   It began while he was Commissioner of Police in South Australia.   He contemptuously described Afghans and 'savage niggers' as less than animals in his scheme of things and as Marcia McEwan puts it in her work "Ships of the Desert" (Bay Books Sydney),

"To him the aboriginals were creatures to be used when necessary, somewhat less intelligent than his camels."

John McFayden Has a Rendezvous with the Shooters

The South Australian Department of Environment credits Winnecke with having crossed twice in 1883.   While we don't think Winnecke was the irascible old humbug that Warburton clearly was, the CGG Party S6507 that built the French Line still do not rate a mention in the official Desert Parks Handbook and neither do we get a guernsey in the new Canberra National Museum.

One of the three supply truck drivers, John McFayden, notched up 12,000 miles in personal crossings in his Inter AB160 along our French Line during CGG's seismic campaign in 1963.   There could be a few tour operators quietly nudging towards John's record.  If it were to be surpassed I'd like to hear about it as I am in favour of organised and responsible touring and want to see a lot more of it.

Three Cheers For the Comalco Camel

Regarding "proper" crossings it was C.Warren Bonython's view ("Walking the Simpson Desert" Rigby 1980) that none of the classical crossings prior to the 1960s went close to the centre of the Simpson Desert, only Darby von Sanden's 1962 traverse passed through the actual centre (Lat 25°22´S and Long 137°5´E), Colson and Madigan having come no closer than 65km of that point.  Darby was the leader of Reg Sprigg's Geosurveys support team when Reg skirted the SA/NT border and he brought the team down between the dunes to meet Reg and family before his boss pressed on to Birdsville to complete an epic drive.  Bonython queried the significance of crossing a "more or less circular area (the desert) if the track does not pass substantially through the centre" which is a reasonable enough proposition, although my jaundiced view has it that Dalhousie to Birdsville by the most direct route (via Poeppels Corner) constitutes a proper-enough crossing even though it falls well south of the geographical centre.

All the same, it was Bonython's aluminium buggy the "Comalco Camel" that earned pride of place in the Simpson Desert section of the National Museum.  Reg described this 1973 feat undertaken by Bonython and partner McCubbin and the 70s walks of others as "human endurance trials" and while I am sure he was not deliberately belittling their effort in dragging the "Camel", he was perturbed that the petroleum exploration industry campaigns in the Simpson were given scant mention in historical narratives of the time when so much evidence was available of the long and arduous endeavour by young Australian men and women that occurred there "semi-continuously through all seasons and for more than two decades".   If the Museum's board chooses to promote a corporate friend in this way they could leave the "Camel" on show but resurrect Reg Sprigg's old 4WD from where it lies in Copley SA and give him at least equal prominence.  I have a fair amount of backup material indicating how the Simpson was opened up to 4WD traffic, to complement such an exhibit.



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