EAST FROM OODNA

Evidence gathers that the South Australian Surveyor-General Augustus Poeppel deliberately covered up his error of declination in 1879 when surveying the point where three States meet that is now known as Poeppels Corner.  When he got back to Adelaide he found he had made a slight error in chaining and had placed the vital survey peg fifteen chains too far to the east.

Author Frank Clune interviewed Edmund Colson subsequent to his 1936 crossing and by his own calculations, Colson agreed he overshot the mark, passing 274 metres (15 chains) to the side of it on the way to Birdsville.  Lawrence (Larry) Wells, Poeppel's 23 year old assistant surveyor, covered for his master who reckoned his tape had stretched an inch, by going out and placing the box peg at its proper mark at the beginning of his extraordinary 1883-6 NT/QLD border survey expedition.  


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Poeppel Stretches Belief

Reg Sprigg's Standby Survey Marker


Maps are always based on true north which is synonymous with map bearing.  Magnetic north is where the needle points and is synonymous with compass bearing.  The angle between the compass needle and true north is called "declination" and the amount of declination is usually indicated on the area map.

Poeppels Corner has become one of the most significant State 'Corner' sites of Federation Australia.  It was fortunate that Reg Sprigg found Poeppel's Peg buried and in a parlous state when he came through in 1962 and determined to ask the Adelaide Museum to preserve it.  Ultimately, a copy was made and placed on site.

CGG's First Glimpse of Reg's Drum at Poeppels Corner


Reg's drum stood duty as the standby marker and it was still there after the French Line construction team Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) Party S6507 seismic survey crew came through in 1963.  Much to Reg's chagrin, the drum was missing when he next returned to the scene a year later.

Did Poeppel use a tape or did he lay out a 22 yard-long steel, linked chain in the conventional manner of explorers of the day?   For many years, earnest historic reference has been made in journals of Poeppel's "tape" actually stretching at the crucial final stage of his "chaining" journey west from Birdsville.  Whatever it was he used that stretched, chain or tape, his apologists claimed he placed his marker too far west; which is convenient if you don't want to believe it somehow got shorter.

The clue that something was amiss with this theory came from Frank Clune's wartime interview with Edmund Colson in which Colson declared that he had overshot the peg, missing it completely when travelling east on a compass course on his 1936 camel crossing.  I have heard of no other crucial marker post so positioned in error in Australian history, least of all just this one poorly placed by an esteemed professional surveyor.    Incredibly, Augustus Poeppel was the South Australian Government Surveyor-General of the time and his whole department was under some scrutiny by the Commissioner for Crown Lands, Thomas Playford.

Dim View of Tippling Taken by the Police


South Australian archives for the 1880s disclose that the Commissioner for Police was taking a "dim view of tippling" in the Surveyor General's office at the time, prompting Poeppel to profess to his superior in writing on his return, when he had supposedly "proceeded to let his hair down after what had been no doubt months of hot, dry and testing exploration", that he was "not a drunkard".   Further, that he was "willing to prevent the possibility of a recurrence of such a disgrace by becoming a total abstainer."  The answer was a stern "No."

The archives (Source: GRG 35/245/903/1881 and GRG 35/245/915/1881) conclude that although Poeppel tendered his resignation, perhaps the circumstances were re-examined, for he later undertook more survey work for the Surveyor General's office, prior to retiring to Melbourne in 1885.  His wife became the publican of the Swanson Street pub, the Yarrawonga.

Seismic Workers Gather Around


If he had placed his peg too far east as both Colson and Larry Wells had indicated, then Poeppel's error was one of declination and so far no-one has suggested the measuring tape or chain shrank.  Map SG 954-5 in the National Topographic series quotes variations of   6°25´ easterly to 6°51´ as at 1985, which might indicate to a learned map-reader or mathematician working back to circa 1880, a discrepancy of around fifteen chains - to the east, not west.  Poeppel sank more than a hundred box posts a mile apart on that trip - are we to believe the "stretching" (or shrinking) occurred on the last mile?   As Clune observed :
"Surveyor Poeppel found that he had made a slight error in chaining and had placed the vital three-corner peg fifteen chains too far to the east.   In 1883 Larry Wells went out and moved the peg to its present position.  There it remained, unvisited and doing its work quietly and without any fuss for 53 years until Ted Colson arrived and had a squiz at it."

Reg's Drum with CGG Sign and Trig on Top


Larry Wells steadfastly kept silent on the matter to the grave.  His instructions were to rechain about fifty miles from a trig station near Birdsville to the southwest corner of Queensland and he carried out the task to the letter without further public comment.

Only a few people have seen the peg in place.  Two oil prospectors, Colin Haywood and John Burberry, descended upon the tri-state corner in May 1961 in their TAA Hiller 12E helicopter.   Since Colson and Madigan and the late arrivals, no-one but the Sprigg family had seen it.  When Reg came through in 1962 as the virtual advance party for CGG, he took it back to Adelaide Museum so that it might be refurbished, replacing it with a steel, silver-painted 44gal drum fashioned as he put it :

"... complete with a 3m long 50mm galvanized piping with a trig on top, filled with sand and the lot guy-wired in for stability on the actual spot where the corner post had apparently originally stood."

Chopper Drops in on Poeppels Peg, 1961


Readers often come across references to the original Poeppels Corner post as being cut from almost any other Australian native timber (waddi, coolibah) than box, but it was not so.   The replica now in place is actually cast in cement, but box posts were used extensively as markers because they were at hand and economical and Poeppel continued the practice.   The botanist Dr Ferdinand von Mueller, sponsor of Leichhardt and Burke & Wills and curator of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, gave the name eucalyptus hemiphloia to the stiff, tough and durable widely-distributed timber commonly called box.

For a long time Reg Sprigg had the idea my CGG party pinched his silver drum and I was pleased to be able to assure him with the photograph below provided by client French Petroleum's geophysicist Dean Drayton that Reg's temporary marker was still in place at least a month following our passing through to the Channel Country.  Some adventurous rogue must have picked it up in a "drum-run" after CGG passed the 'Corner.

Who Was the Mystery Drum-runner?


Post-Poeppels, CGG's drum recovery runs headed for our new supply dump at Dickerrie Creek on the Eyre and we suspect someone coming in from the Birdsville side may have mopped up drums west of the 'Corner and managed to pick this one of Reg's up at the same time.  They were four quid apiece refundable in those days and a light and profitable load could be comfortably carted along our fresh, ready-made road.    The CGG drums were all Ampol red and blues until we switched to BP greens and yellows in the Channel Country proper.

There is lots of misinformation in the public arena that can stand correction, among them the claims in the Desert Handbook, an otherwise superior publication put out by the SA Department of Environment & Natural Resources, that Charles Winnecke crossed the Simpson twice in 1883 while he actually trailed along the southeast edges from Lake Eyre to Poeppels Corner.    They also have Barclay crossing in 1904 and TE Day in 1916 but Barclay merely skirted the northern edge from the Overland Telegraph line to the Diamantina River and none of these explorers had ever crossed the desert or even got near its centre.

First Exploration Team to Reach Poeppels Corner


South Australia's DENR unaccountably fails to mention the seismic crew to first explore the Simpson and create the path that has become the enduring French Line, in any of its publications on the region.  DENR overlooks the forty-five intrepid souls from CGG Party S6507 who entered from Dalhousie on July 1st 1963 carting heavy plant with mining and earthmoving equipment and bearing their living quarter-trailers with them, snail-like, supported by half-crazy Cessna pilots plopping down on makeshift claypan landing strips.

Scientists, drillers, shooters, juggies, truckies, office workers and dozer drivers with French nationals and migrants and travellers from many countries in their ranks but outnumbered overall by Aussie labour, they teamed up in this bold strike to take one straight, savage bite out of the Simpson's sands.  Instead the credit according to the department, erroneously falls to the absent financier, French Petroleum, and ignores the feat of the operator on the ground, Compagnie Generale de Geophysique.

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