Cashbook and Claypan
Birdsville or Bust
East From Oodna
Alive in the Dead Heart
B-line for Birdsville
The Tragic Page Family Perish
Victims of Circumstance During Christmas Heatwave
Map of the Birdsville Track
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
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:
Search Parties Hindered by Poor Communications
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
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
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:
Ernie Advised to Call in to Clifton Hills
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
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
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
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.
"PERISH" NEXT PAGE
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