BIRDSVILLE OR BUST

As the South Australian-based farming pioneers ventured north from Marree in the 1880s seeking new pastoral holdings, their enterprise led them well into Queensland Channel Country.   The path they took along the Kallakoopah floodplain became the famous supply line known as the 'Birdsville Track', eventually linking Adelaide and Birdsville.   For many years the Afghan camel teams based in Marree handled the bulk of the public cartage along the 'Track, although shut out from carrying mail by a PMG stipulation that horses must be used on mail contracts.  This situation lasted at least up until 1924 when the postal service relented.  It was not until 1926 that motor transport began to usurp the role of both horses and camels carrying all manner of things on the route.

The precious photos on this page have not survived as well as I would have liked.    They do capture moments historic in nature however, so I trust that makes up for the loss in quality suffered in reproduction (Ed. Kevin Murphy).


FRED TEAGUE
AT HIS
HAWKER HQ

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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Birdsville Track Mailmen

The Men Behind the Wheel

Wally and Fred Carting Building Materials


One of Tom Kruse's Leyland Badgers is pictured somewhere along the famous Birdsville Track while carting frame timbers to rebuild the burnt-out Birdsville Hospital, following its first-time fire in 1937.  Fred Teague is at the wheel, accompanied by offsider Wally Blucher.  Fred was the owner/operator of the Hawker garage from the time he married at the outbreak of war, but had been running the mails for 18 months pre-war on his own account until the time he settled down and was virtually on call for Tom.  When the hospital burnt down again almost a quarter of a century later, Fred was at it once more, engaged by Tom Kruse in bringing up the materials for the next rebuild of the hospital.

When the Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) oilmen emerged from the Simpson Desert along the road they built in 1963, the French Line, they too were making limited use of the Birdsville Track to bring up heavy motor spares and explosives from Adelaide and so maintain their oil exploration campaign on the Birdsville side of the desert.  Time was of the essence in the oil business over cost, so if an International AB160 transfer case or a LandRover engine was needed to keep on schedule it was preferred that the load be crammed into a Cessna for speedy delivery into the desert, else the contractors got the job.

Before the 1964 summer was over though, logistics demanded most road-deliverable supplies for CGG come in by semi-trailer from Brisbane.   Fortunately, the drilling crews that swarmed in afterwards following the strike at Gidgealpa and the stepping up of the oil-search activity throughout the Great Artesian Basin gave solid business to the Birdsville Track carrying contractors that lasted for a decade, effectively starting the "Birdsville Boom" that continues today.

Materials Arrive to Rebuild the Birdsville AIM Hospital


Nursing sisters Mona Henry and Lillian Whitehead served two year stints on duty at the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) Hospital, Birdsville, as did all the other nursing pairs who volunteered for the tough outback calling.  Mona and Lillian were incumbents from 1951 to 1953 and suffered the tragedy of the total loss of the hospital in the fire that happened shortly before Christmas in 1951.  They were lucky to escape with their lives.

The rebuild began with the shipment by heavy transport of the building materials.   Marree was as far as the conventional carriers could go and it was left to Fred Teague and Montie Scobie to cart the fragile and bulky loads up the Birdsville Track this time.  Fred was well-equipped to handle the rigours of the 'Track the second time around.  He had often completed the course two or three times per week as the mail contractor himself and on one memorable fully-laden trip to Birdsville he took only 18 hours on the up and a mere 12 hours for the empty return to Marree.

Bogged on the Birdsville Track


In my travels through South Australia I hadn't ever stopped off in Fred's home town of Hawker, only having driven through once late at night but I came to know Fred Teague a little in his retirement years, communicating over the telephone and by mail.  The only other close encounter with Hawker came when I was flying to Port Augusta enroute from Reg Sprigg's Geosurveys reunion at Arkaroola.   Pilot Doug Sprigg pointed Hawker out to me as we overflew it.  Coincidentally I learned on my return home to Sydney, that was the day Fred Teague passed away.  Like you'd expect from venerable oldtimers, I found Fred to be a wonderful source of outback stories, principally covering his own encounters along the Birdsville Track, but he also interested me with his tales of David George, the onetime proprietor of Muckajumpa south of Old Alton Downs, then situated on the Eyre Creek on the edge of the Simpson.

Fred recounted that David, a customer of his on the mailrun, told him how he would often venture many, many miles between the sandhills of the Simpson in search of "cleanskins" - unbranded cattle that the lucky finder could claim and brand for his own - and on occasions in a stiff southerly blow, he'd reported that the windswept western sides of some of the dunes revealed the remains of diprotodons that had perished long ago.  Then a northerly blow would cover it all up again for perhaps years.  I have long suspected these are the circumstances in which more evidence of explorer Leichhardt's demise will be similarly uncovered.

I have a record of Ted Colson on his way back from Birdsville in 1936 calling in on Harold George, reputed as being the genial owner and host at Alton Downs, then situated on the Mulligan and yet another reference from an 1885 pastoral map showing a DN George as the proprietor of the next most southern lease from Alton, a lease which following common practice, may have been handed down by DN George to offspring David George and renamed Muckajumpa - favoured stopoff for Fred Teague in the 1930's, but this is conjecture on my part.

Blitzwagons Bogged Even Better Before Birdsville


The mail contractors of the Birdsville Track could cope with most mishaps that would deter other drivers and overcome disasters as well but water on the 'Track in quantity usually bested them.  These Ford Blitzes belonging to Tom Kruse are well and truly bogged enroute to Birdsville and on this occasion it was driver Max Bowden who led Montie Scobie into the mire where they became stuck for a week.

The dusty, dry channels have the habit of turning themselves into fifty-mile wide inland seas almost overnight and paradoxically when the waters subside, lush green herbage sprouts and reoccupies the channels.  This virgin growth has the effect of attracting plagues of rabbits and rats and other pests to decimate it and once again turn the channels into a dust zone.  Throughout this brutal cycle and in spite of it, the indefatigable Birdsville Track mailmen would determinedly steer their course - rain, hail or shine.

Well-known Mail Contractor Tom Kruse


When he resumed the mail contract after the outbreak of WWII, Tom Kruse bought another Leyland Badger, this time one equipped with a powerful 5.7 litre diesel engine in contrast with the lesser-performing lower-spec'd petrol-engined models he'd run in the past.  He rated it as the best of the bunch he'd had up to that stage, but once the war was over and ex-Army disposals sales brought four-wheel drive Blitzwagons into the market, Tom reckoned :

"Life became a little easier and we didn't do nearly as much digging out of the sandhills as we had to do with the older trucks."
By far the most celebrated South Australian outback character of the past fifty years, Tom Kruse starred in the Shell-backed film "Back o' Beyond" and more recently returned to the 'Track to feature in the documentary "Last Mail for Birdsville" shown on national television and produced by Blitzophile Keith Webb of Melbourne's Image Control, who has another doco in the pipeline based on CGG's use of Blitzwagons in their French Line exploration.

Tom Kruse's Badger Featured on 'Back o' Beyond'


Exploits of Australia's back-country drivers are chronicled in John Maddock's book "Mail for the Back of Beyond" (Kangaroo Press 1996).   John was editor of "Truck and Bus" magazine for many years and some of the photos credited here are from his collection.   As one can expect, there are some memorable quotations to be found in Maddock's work, because remarkable people often get remarked upon.  George Farwell too, remarked in "Land of Mirage" (Rigby 1960) about a friend of his who knew the country well, having once traversed the Simpson Desert with Madigan, making the comment on the backblocks mail deliveries:

"I just didn't see the point of a mail service that appears to battle through from one desert to another."
Up to the time regular air services began Tom Kruse, with his exclusive mail contract, carted all the Channel Country mail up the 'Track but thereafter opportunities for consistent cartage of mail and other goods also began to fizzle out.   Although the coming of the oil rig workers who followed CGG's exploratory work in the desert brought life into the district once again towards a peak of activity that has barely abated to this day, the end of the mail contract and the revival of Birdsville's fortunes was signalled simultaneously by the completion of the French Line in 1963.

Madigan Gets Off to a Good Start


Pioneering efforts of latter-day explorers like Madigan and others skirting around and about the Simpson Desert were greatly convenienced by the availability of skilled truckies operating within the transport network established by Harry Ding at Yunta beginning in the 1930's.  Due to his initiative, mail and supplies were carried throughout South Australia and far into Queensland for over thirty years until the work dwindled away to nothing, beaten principally by the emerging use of aircraft.

Mail to and from Birdsville for the CGG exploring party was invariably carried by TAA's Channel Country fortnightly service and private operators from the east commenced bringing in heavier loads by semi-trailer, taking further business away from contractors such as Tom.  He faced stiff competition from the local publican, Ernie Portch, who seized his chance and began carrying his own grog orders from SA Brewers up the 'Track from Adelaide to his pub.

Sudden Channel Country Mail Service Collapse


Flight West Airlines, Australia's biggest privately owned rural airline, ceased trading suddenly.   Mounting losses had forced the directors' decision to wind up the company rather than incur further debt, it was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (June 20, 2001).  As a result, all south-western Queensland and other services plus all of the Birdsville Track to the South Australian border has been left without a mail service.

According to the mayor of Roma, Mr Bruce Garvie :

"We're in a desperate situation.   It's another case of the bush suffering at the hands of economic reform."
Kym Fort, the proprietor of the Birdsville Hotel, supported the mayor, claiming the collapse had stopped all mail and cut off vital supplies to his town.  Flight West flew to 34 destinations in its fleet of 16 aircraft.   The company chairman, Sir Dennis Buchanan, blamed the low Australian dollar, high fuel prices, competition and plummeting fare yields.   Whatever the cause, several other airlines servicing the Australian outback generally have shut up shop since or merged, perhaps dropped uneconomical routes - so a trend is emerging, turning full circle - back to road transport.   Might we go further back in time and eventually have to depend on camel trains?   Not likely.   We are almost out of Afghan drivers.

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LINK TO THESE DIGESTS FROM THIS PAGE

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


GONE TO MOTHBALLS .....
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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