EAST FROM OODNA

The French Line was a one-shot deal for the times that could not be repeated in the modern era for fiscal as well as ecological reasons, for there is a national park at either end and it is now bounded by aboriginal territory or private pastoral property.  The oilmen from Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG), who were the early desert conquerors in being first to forge a direct path across the Simpson Desert, are bemused that the prevailing wisdom up to 1962 was that "no motor vehicle would ever cross the dunes", yet in the years since the construction of the French Line, crossing has become commonplace for all and sundry.

These days, home-made wagons and prefab contraptions venture over the dunes, through the swales along the French Line.  Walkers and runners dare to join in.  The CGG seismic party's feat in carving the road in 1963 when it was widely thought to be a hazardous and foolhardy undertaking, doesn't rate a mention in the National Museum where the "Comalco Camel" takes pride of place on the Simpson Desert stand.


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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

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Join the CGG veterans on their return journeys to the French Line. Take their tip and travel with experts

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Poeppel Stretches Belief - (Cont'd)

Larry Despairs of His Boss' Poor Bushcraft

Careless Camper on the Plenty River Floodout


Poeppel was a government surveyor, so says the official line.   In 1879 he marked the corner boundary of Queensland, the Northern Territory and South Australia.   Unfortunately his initial work was at fault due to his chain (tape) being one inch too long and was redone in 1884.  Larry Wells, who could have said otherwise but having decided to support his boss' story on the stretched tape, dumped on him a little in his journal of the survey expedition of 1883-6, when after his prolonged absence of some weeks over Christmas 1884 he declared:
"Mr Poeppel arrived minus five camels and only bare saddles on the remainder, having lost everything he had on leaving Sandringham on his return journey."

Possibly concealing his sincere feelings about his immediate superior, the young Larry wrote subsequently,

"I found Mr Poeppel an agreeable companion, a most competent surveyor and a good allround bushman.  He could sink and timber a well and make a windlass.  He always did good work and used to tell me that if anything was worth doing it was worth doing well."

Larry Wells Appeared Supportive of Poeppel


Wells understood that Poeppel had been scouting around the Plenty River floodout country when he was overtaken by the rain at Glenormiston.  He had camped his camels in a box flat on Idamea Lake into which Pituri Creek emptied and when it looked like a flood, five of the camels refused to leave and all the goods and saddles were soon under water.  Nothing was saved:
"Next morning there was over twenty feet of water in the flat and the five camels floating about drowned", he reported. That his leader had Wells' sympathy is evident on another occasion as he continued, "Mr Poeppel lost the use of one eye while we were on Gnala Nagea Creek, having got a severe cold whilst sinking a well and standing in cold water so long and later on had to retire and give place to Mr Carruthers as leader of the expedition."

Colson Memorial Cairn is Built in Birdsville


Reg Sprigg went back to Birdsville to build the Colson tribute out of rocks scrounged from the Diamantina and enlisted locals in the unveiling ceremony.  Reg, who himself pioneered the motorised crossing of the Simpson, somehow held an opinion Ted Colson crossed on horseback - though most definitive accounts had Colson and his native guide riding camels.   It strikes me that a cairn is needed to Poeppel and to Reg to go with the three there now - one each to Colson placed 1975, Madigan 1962 and CGG Party S6507 in 1998 (the latter standing diminutively in the middle like a little lost brother) opposite the Birdsville Pub.

After my last crossing in July 2003 when I accompanied Vic Widman of Great Divide Tours, I have learned a fourth cairn has been erected in the near vicinity of the original three.  I had been anticipating this would be the one saluting Poeppel but it turns out not to be so.  Crucial links for the opening up of the Simpson would be near to complete with the addition of a cairn to Poeppel, a man about whom praises have been sung long and loud but I regard Reg Sprigg as the man singularly most responsible for enabling recreational drivers and academics to share the experience of crossing the Simpson, having so dramatically cleared away all doubts of motor vehicles being capable of venturing through the desert wastes.  Thus, it would be appropriate for him to be honoured similarly.

A Wall of Plaques For Birdsville?


In a fitting gesture towards the memory of Augustus Poeppel, the Federal President of the Institution of Surveyors, Peter Swan, has it in hand for a plaque to be mounted within a proposed "Wall of Honour" opposite the Birdsville pub.  This was the event I figured had already occurred, but there had been a hiccup in the approval process at the last minute, I was told.  Among Peter's contemporaries pressing for the placement is Bill Kitson, curator of the Queensland Museum of Lands, Mapping and Surveying.  In contact with them, both surveyors disputed my theory of an error of declination being responsible for Poeppel's flawed survey of the 26th parallel, and I have to defer to their superior knowledge in their craft.  However, a few niggling elements remained to be answered for me.

While agreeing with me that the Surveyor General for South Australia would not have attempted such an important task armed with a measuring tape and that it was highly likely he used a standard wrought iron chain, as was the practice common to all land surveyors at the time, for the work was universally called "chaining", both men upon consulting with other members of their fraternity, were of the opinion it was possible for that chain to stretch due to wear.

However much wear happened to poor Poeppel's chain, I couldn't see it would suddenly make a difference in the last mile of fifteen chains (a chain being 22 yards).   They were at a loss to convince me other than it must have shrunk to cause such an enormous shortfall in the measurement of a relatively minor sector - the erroneous placement of the last box post out of ninety nine other mile posts, for it was planted not far enough west rather than too far west, the commonly held belief.

One Hundred Posts Out of Whack


Bill Kitson took the position that declination could only be a factor if Poeppel was conducting astro-fixes for longitude, whereas he was measuring on the ground.  He claims every one of the mile posts between the 'Corner and Birdsville must be out, because they have never been re-surveyed and replaced.  Quite a prospect.  Maybe someone one day will expand upon Poeppel's "missing links."

Over a hundred years ago Archibald Meston, the first man appointed to the office of Protector of Aboriginals, showed a common lack of familiarity with the famous surveyor when he referred to Poeppel as "Peebles", in his Geographic History of Queensland (E Gregory 1895).

What's in a name?    In Augustus Poeppel's case, a lot.   The first time in recent years I heard someone say "Pepple" I nearly fell about.    When CGG were active in the desert, when it was a name on the tip of our tongues every day and I was on the two-way radio several times a day using the name, reading out telegrams to and fro the RFDS bases, it was invariably pronounced "Popple".   All the oldtimers of my day seemed to prefer the pronunciation of his surname as Popple, rightly or wrongly.

Right or Wrong, Even Pronouncing His Name We Argue


Reg Sprigg said Popple, so said Rex Lowe off Mt Dare and Tom Kruse concurs, too.   I can't say I know if Pec from Oodna Stores said it that way, but by definition, Reg's professors and pillars of Adelaide society Madigan and Mawson did and Reg didn't correct that hypothesis of mine.

I turned to Tom Kruse, who had taken Madigan on his journey to "crack the nut" (being the conquest to beat the Simpson Desert) and launched the professor on his way to Poeppels Corner in 1939, but he couldn't seal the debate for me, the subject being too far back in antiquity for the old warrior.   Quite the vogue in South Australia between the wars was to take some trouble in skewing German placenames and even changing them altogether as in swapping the name of Hergott Springs for Marree.

Thin Air Myths Are The Toughest To Toss


When good people carry an earnest belief, it is catching.  When the good people have the power of popular broadcast - TV, radio, the press, internet and whatever, some of the commonly held views of the populace can be swamped.  So it appeared to me some years ago when I spotted this paragraph on the influential "Exploroz" website :
"The first successful crossing of the desert occurred in 1936 by E A (Ted) Colson and the first motorised crossing, wasn't until 1962 by geologist Reg Sprigg and his family. 10 Months later and using pegs laid out by Reg Sprigg, the oilworkers of CGG (Compagnie Generale de Geophysique) the prime contractor of French Petroleum, forged a track now known as the "French Line" ..."
My old colleagues of CGG can be counted among the pioneers of the Simpson.  There undoubtedly were a handful of other pioneer explorers and all should be accorded their due, including George Debney for his double-go (going to work on horseback) from Annandale on the Eyre Creek at the time of the Overland Telegraph Line construction.

"A Geologist Strikes Out" Without Pegs


The seismic explorers CGG however, were the first to make the direct, now-popular crossing by land from Dalhousie to Poeppels Corner by any method - horse, camel, on foot - whatever, and the first Europeans to live in the desert for a period longer than a couple of months.  Perhaps before and since 1963-64, no person has stayed so long in the Simpson without emerging, as did CGG.  Know of someone who disputes that?  Who'd want to stay any longer, you ask.  The evidence I have shows that the native hordes living on the perimeter of the Simpson from the time of the demise of the diprotodon, maybe 5000 years ago, crossed around the edges only and the ring of native mikiris surrounding the desert north and south, seems to bear that out.

It fell to the editors of Exploroz to declare that CGG followed the "pegs laid out by Reg Sprigg" which startled me and I obliged the management to correct the error, supplying solid proof of Reg's route vide the map in his book ("A Geologist Strikes Out" - p219).   If their proposition was correct, the French Line would now run along the SA/NT border, as Reg had done on that occasion when he crossed, need I say it? - pegless.  The correspondence has gone on for more than four years.  Exploroz has since claimed they used my account found on this web site.  At any rate, they have afforded me no further responses and took the tricky but legitimate practice of erasing my post when I deigned to make my point on the Exploroz Forum, calling it poor form on my part.

Take Care in the Land of Myth


When wild men celebrate at the Birdsville Races, prepare yourself - for it is not necessarily wholesome stuff that goes on around the town.   Plenty of enthusiasts in the past have failed to convince sensitive first-time visitors of the raw jollity and lawlessness to be encountered at the Desert frontier at racetime.

Typical also of the myths that survive, journalist Michael Sawtell claimed in Walkabout of February 1948 that the swirling red dust travelling south-east blowing away from the tops of the sandhills miles high and clobbering Sydney over summers past, was signalling the eventual emptying of the desert, while Madigan a few short years before had it that the desert sand was moving to the north-west.   He added that pastoralists in the corner of South Australia often say if they can wait long enough all the sand in South Australia will pass off into Queensland.

Biologist Francis Ratcliffe (Flying Fox and Shifting Sand - Angus &Robertson 1947) denied that the sandhills were shifting at all.    George Farwell (Land of Mirage - Rigby 1960) reported Ratcliffe as proving conclusively on his 1936 study commissioned by the SA Govt, that the sandridges are stationary and have been so for a very long period indeed.  Au contraire!  What a wondrous, enigmatic place is our "One True Desert".

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