BIRDSVILLE OR BUST

The Birdsville Track to Marree skirts the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert and is one of Australia's three most-travelled droving routes, with ten cattle stations spread along its 500km length.   Anyone careless enough to stray off it just 200 metres or take a wrong turn like the English migrant Page family who lost their way in the summer of 1963, invites a dice with disaster.

Margaret Jones, writing about the Birdsville Track in Sydney's Sun-Herald at the time of the Page family perish, described Birdsville as an outlet for the stock routes of the rich cattle country of south-west Queensland.  Stock come down the Birdsville Track to the railhead at Marree in South Australia.  The track itself runs south from Birdsville along the Diamantina River, bordering Goyders Lagoon.  It crosses the Warburton River, Coopers Creek and the Clayton and Frome Rivers before it reaches Marree.  "In drought years,  it is a barely visible path across gibber plains and drifting sandhills", she concluded in her feature article.


ERNIE PAGE

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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The Tragic Page Family Perish

Victims of Circumstance During Christmas Heatwave

Map of the Birdsville Track


News of the desert drama broke in the Australian dailies on New Years Day 1964, after a note was found in the abandoned car.   All accounts hinted that the driver had become disoriented by confusing tracks left by a seismic survey party in the vicinity of Goyders Lagoon.   This perception was of grave concern to the men of Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) Party S6507 who had just left the area on Christmas leave.

After CGG had forged the French Line as far as Poeppels Corner, few of our vehicles ventured on past Eyre Creek, although on a couple of occasions before Christmas I had journeyed to Birdsville and back in a Lannie via the old Alton Downs station.  This meant crossing both the 'Wet' and the 'Dry' Birdsville Tracks but I used the path well-north of Clifton Hills, closer to Pandie and while the Adelaide Advertiser mudmap (inset above) lacks detail, subsequent research on tracing their movements in those final days showed conclusively that the Pages' didn't cross my tracks.

On the Trail of the Pages


It had been a mystery to me as to which tracks might have confused the Page family, if that was the cause of their demise.   Our sister group, CGG Party S6509, worked the Goyders Lagoon area later on in 1964, so they were in the clear.   Once my CGG desert group emerged from the Simpson, we went up Eyre Creek and worked Sandringham to Boulia and further east until about October that year.   That cleared us, I expected.  The Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR), now known by the acronym "AGSO", was the Federal Government's seismic prospector.  They were often in our vicinity in the Channel Country and because we had a wet bar and they didn't, CGG's Cafe de Blitz became a popular rendezvous for their staff after hours.  While we were in the Simpson, it was they who were surveying along the Birdsville Track.  The social occasions between the parties graduated to regular Sunday cricket matches on a claypan someplace and we privateers got to know the BMR public servants well.

Realistically, blame cannot be attached to either the BMR nor Delhi/SANTOS crews, the latter busily bringing Gidgealpa #2 in on New Year's Eve 130kms to the south-east.   Oldtimer Noel Glass fears that a fresh detour he made just north of Clifton Hills may have contributed to Ernie Page going off kilter although Ernie's confusion was likely to have been compounded by an oil drilling rig and crews that shifted from Cordillo Downs area to the Cooper Basin.  "This became the beaten track," says Noel, the chap who drove young Robert Page to Etadunna on his date with destiny, continuing:

"The rest of the outside road was undiscernable.  This is where they went, later realising they were wrong and turned back."

Search Parties Hindered by Poor Communications


Early reports were sketchy.   The nation was on holidays which meant not only were the police understrength but also the press was on skeleton staff as well.   Communications were unreliable due to radio system incompatibilities between ground and air forces and back to their bases.   Searchers were scrambling from their far-flung HQs in regional centres and cities of Queensland and South Australia and were hindered on the way by local and unseasonal flooding.  Journalists were having difficulties confirming stories and tracking down witnesses and so had to pull out material from newspaper archives to bolster what little fresh text they could generate.

On leave in Sydney, I read reports of a family of four missing.    They were subsequently revealed to be Ernie Page, aged 48 and his wife Emma 45, both only 5'5" tall and slightly built Britishers, both determined to become "bushies".   They had grown to love the barren, empty outback and cope with its challenges on their inland incursions to date, having first arrived in Australia on assisted passages via the "Orion" in August 1959.  They soon left the city delights behind and headed for the bush.  Sons Douglas 12 and Gordon 10 accompanied them from their home base in Marree on this final trip.

A later story had them joined on the journey by their eldest son.   It transpired that 19 year old Robert, who had been jackerooing on Clifton Hills for manager Fred Wilson but had left the cattle station, hitching a ride south on the Birdsville Mail, unaware that his family was making their way towards him.

Hitching a Ride With the Birdsville Mail


Noel Glass drove for Pat Smith.  Smith had bought the Birdsville Track mail run from Tom Kruse and operated his business as QMB Transport.  The contract stipulated that drivers handling the Queen's mail be registered with the PMG and Noel was one of his team of five registered drivers.  Noel ferried the Clifton Hills ringers to Birdsville for the festive break in the red pug-nosed Thames Trader mail truck while another registered driver, Billy Wilson, was carting a load of fuel to Cowarie.

Young Robert Page had told Noel he was going home for Christmas and would he mind giving him a lift to Marree on his back load trip from Birdsville?  Noel was due back at Clifton Hills on Wednesday, 18th December.  On that same day Ernie Page began his journey to Queensland.

Holiday Snap at Coopers Crossing


The two QMB drivers met at the Coopers Crossing punt.  Coming in from Cowarie and up to Mosquito Creek, with no load on and time on his side, Billy Wilson bailed them up after he crossed and they yarned for a bit.  It was Billy who produced the box Brownie camera and snapped the group before they got going again for Marree.  Among them in a unique though hazy photo and captured for posterity was from the left, an unnamed fellow accompanying Billy, then Robert Page, Tommy Nailon, Kevin King, Noel Glass and Ernie Pake, the punt operator.

Out of the blue approaching Etadunna, Robert asked Noel to slow down.  According to Noel, Robert knew nothing of his father's hasty decision to quit the town, and recalls Robert's reaction when he spotted his dad's Ford:

"At the Etadunna gate he suddenly exclaimed, 'that looks like the old man's car' and it was.  At that time you had to stop and open a gate, so Ernie pulls up and they both abuse each other for not letting each other know what was happening.  So after all the talk, the lad threw his swag on the trailer and away they went."

Ernie Advised to Call in to Clifton Hills


Noel Glass urged the father to call in on Clifton Hills homestead, impressing upon Ernie that the turnoff was marked by silver Shell Company 44-gal (200 litre) oil drums laying about, full of fuel and easy to spot and only 20 metres from the road.   He should take the fuel he needed and leave a note on the kitchen door in explanation.  Noting there was a heavily laden bogie trailer in tow, he also took care to caution Ernie to follow the tracks Noel had made on his last run up to Birdsville and avoid bogs, passing on Fred Wilson's recommendation that Noel take a sidetrack from the usual choices to town owing to recent local rains.

The tip was simply this: after Clifton, go three to four miles along the "outside" road, then cut back across country to the "inside" road - a diversion that added only an extra half-hour to travel at most but which would skirt the wet area.  Ernie would be wise to do the same, Noel suggested.

So it was that Ernie and his entourage reached Coopers Creek on their first day out from Marree.    There Robert again met Ernie Pake, the punt operator for the second time in the day.  With Robert on board, now there were five innocents heading for tragedy.  Pake punted them across, let them down on the other side and bade them farewell.  He was to be the last man to see them alive.

Midnight Flit From Marree for Page Family


Elder son Robert was familiar with the harsh country through which they were passing as he had worked on Clifton Hills for the past six months and knew his way around the station and environs.  Ernie Page was no slouch either when it came to travel preparations and the rules to be observed for outback driving.  He had often been overheard advising all who would listen to "stay with your vehicle" should they break down in the bush.

Ernie was handy with cars too, having worked as a mechanic at Dave Millar's garage in Marree and was a bulldozer driver back in his home countryside in Kent, England.  All up, a handy, knockabout bloke to travel with, anyone would think.

Noel Glass wasn't to know that Ernie carried a reputation from Marree as a 'pig-headed Pom', however he sensed that his advice didn't register with Ernie, as subsequent events were to confirm.  Kept from the newspaper reports was the fact that Ernie had got the sack.  Dave Millar put him off, he said, because he was too busy talking and he spent not near enough time working.  That was why Ernie Page left Marree in such a hurry.  There were no job prospects left for him in a "no secrets" small town.  Queensland loomed large and a job in Winton beckoned and all of a sudden there was no time to lose.

Pages Well Prepared For the Birdsville Track


Ernie cleared the house of his family, gathered in his black labrador and the house cat and tossed in his Krico bolt-action .22 repeating rifle and off they all went, Douglas and Gordon clinging to their air rifles.

They were travelling in a powerful vehicle.  Ernie had a tri-coloured Ford Customline 272 V8 automatic sedan, built in 1957 but first registered in 1958 and known to car buffs as a 'Big V'.  It carried 73.1 litres of fuel and was capable of 4.7km/litre at speeds averaging 80kmph.

The car was under hire purchase from Pointon's Garage in Port Augusta.  It had been converted from left hand drive to right hand drive and it also had an automatic gearbox which was fitted with a wide, flat steel bar going from one side of the box to the other, placed underneath during the conversion so as to change or select gears from the right hand side, in the driver's seat.  The modification was to be a significant factor in the events that followed.

Available Maps Lacked Vital Detail


From Marree, with jerrycans in reserve, the track was a bare, single-tank 500km trip all the way to Birdsville, just so long as fuel wasn't spent unneccessarily.  Ernie had a couple of spare jerrycans of water, as much as any other responsible party would carry between service stations, but it was prudent that he call in at Clifton Hills to visit and top up supplies of both petrol and water.  Having Robert on board already and learning that the station was deserted obviously encouraged Ernie to bypass Clifton Hills altogether.   It is not at all certain that stopping off at Clifton would have saved the family; other circumstances were loaded heavily against them.  Maps and mobile radios were basic and unreliable.  Ernie had neither.

Fred Wilson and his family were absent from Clifton Hills attending a Xmas show in Birdsville for the children.  He too, was unaware of the approach of the Page troupe.  No person could have envisaged what was to go wrong and prove so deadly.  Ernie Page had every right to make it safely, yet he faltered as one after another,  the risks he took backfired with horrible results.

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Dead Heart 
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