ALIVE IN THE DEAD HEART

It is everyone's expectation that a desert should have an oasis and the Simpson, Australia's One True Desert, doesn't disappoint for it has two oases.    On one side can be found unlimited water from a bottomless ancient stream fed by the Finke that is Dalhousie and on the other side travellers can be forgiven for thinking the oasis that is the Birdsville Pub has unlimited supplies of beer.

The well-worn path between the two oases is called the French Line and the absolute first people to drive across the Simpson Desert between Dalhousie and Birdsville was the French Line construction crew from Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) in their 1963 seismic quest for oil.


WHERE IS THAT
BIRDSVILLE PUB?

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 Birdsville Pub

Hotel Tattle Tales

Queensland Bordertown's Famous Hotel


When the Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) seismic survey team burst out of the Simpson Desert for the first time in September 1963 after spending three months carving out their access road, the French Line, the first pub they came to was the Birdsville Pub.   Upon revisiting the classic old hotel again at race time in September 2001, my former colleague and CGG shooter John Blaney-Murphy sent me an Australian Collectors Choice postcard of the pub nearly identical in aspect to a photograph he had himself taken almost thirty-eight years before.

The fascia on the awning erroneously displays the hotel's full name in what must have been a touch of artistic licence by the painter F. McGinn.    The facade of the pub had been drastically altered by the collapse of the front wall into the main street, an occasion still fresh in the memories of the CGG men.   This obviously had an impact upon the artist as well.   John Blaney-Murphy came through Birdsville again on CGG's next leave break and took the photograph now displayed in the bar, clearly showing the name left on the fascia was the fore-shortened "BIRDS".

Birdsville's Wall Street Crash


The pub became the "BIRDS" one night in 1963 and stayed that way until at least 1966 when it was spotted and remarked upon by the Leyland Bros in their epic work "Where Dead Men Lie".    CGG Party S6507, the seismic crew that built the French Line (and preceded the Leylands, driving across the Simpson three years before the brothers) were the first of the big oil crews to converge into the Channel Country in the 60's and their camp on the Eyre Creek quickly became the biggest single account to be handled by the Birdsville Pub.

On this historic occasion twenty CGG workers occupied the 'drunk tank' and woke in alarm at 8am to find the side wall had collapsed into the street and they were being chirrupped by a crowd of native Australians who had gathered to sticky-beak among the broken bricks.

Happy Birdsville Pub Customers September 1963


Featured in what turned out to be among the last few photographs taken of the old facade of the Birdsville Hotel when it still had a drunk tank room, several oilworkers from the French Line construction team pose happily before going on leave.   From left are the Roche Bros bulldozer drivers Bluey Wells and Max White, centre at rear CGG programmer Peter Leathem with an unidentified colleague by his side (anyone know who it is?) and at right stands SAATAS pilot Graham Wright.   The red Oilfield Caterers Bedford supply truck can be seen around the corner on the airstrip side of the pub, having just carried its share of the holidaymaker's luggage in from the desert.

The wall fell out into the street later that night.    Putting the postcard and the other photos of the pub on this page into some perspective, the "D" in Birdsville is directly above the fourth post on the right along from the corner in the photos, whereas in the stylised postcard version, the whole "Birdsville Hotel" signage fits neatly inside those first four posts.    It is a mere curiosity, for the artist's licence has the letters balanced better technically on the postcard, than they appear in the original CGG photos.

Efforts Well Worth Celebrating


Juggie Ross Loader enjoys a cigarette with Caterpillar D7 bulldozer driver Bluey Wells in front of the Birdsville pub the day before they both flew home to Adelaide on leave at the end of the 1963 CGG Winter Mission, at the end of which the French Line was completed to Poeppels Corner.   Bluey, continuing his craft as a Caterpillar operator, was to meet the Leyland Bros on the western side of the Simpson when they came through on their epic journey of coast-to-coast discovery in 1966.   In an astonishing omission, Bluey failed to reveal to them the existence of his two-bulldozer-blades wide highway across the dunes he'd had a big hand in building for CGG.

This unfortunate lapse of memory resulted in the Leyland Bros labouring unnecessarily for twenty-one days through the northern part of the Simpson Desert and ultimately missing the top drawcard and landmark Poeppels Corner altogether.

Nothing much was heard of Ross Loader for a good 35 years by many of the CGG fellows.  He partnered CGG supply truck driver John McFayden in a demolition business for some years but then left to work on the aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, where he managed co-op stores for the administration.  That was until he suddenly turned up doing a stocktake at the Oodnadatta Hotel for the aboriginal owners at precisely the same moment six of his old cobbers arrived on their 1998 LROCV Vintage LandRover reunion crossing.    It was a million-to-one chance meeting and much back-slapping and chiacking took place.

Birdsville's Desert Oasis


All three of CGG's pub photos show the line of rocks that formed the edge of the verandah of the old Birdsville Hotel.  One afternoon nearly forty years ago I stood under the awning and watched amazed as publican Norm Portch prepared to prove to me the worth of his recent purchase of a truckload of Southwark beer in bottles he'd just dragged up the Birdsville Track from Adelaide.  Because I handled the accounts and paid the men, looked after the first aid responsibilities and sent the telegrams from my desert caravan-cum-office, I also got to run the bar and order the stock.   I usually ordered in Southwark or Westend beer in 13oz cans out of the SA Breweries and my weekly order was never less than sixty cases and though personal limits of four cans per man per day were in place, my orders rarely lasted the full week.

Norm had been talked into buying new-fangled bottles instead of the old steel cans.  This was in the days before the advent of aluminium cans and the salespeople had told him that the bottles would cool down quicker, hold their cold longer and moreover, were unbreakable.   All of that was a pretty formidable argument for Norm to toss, so he bought.  I was at the pub waiting for him to dock and he alighted from the cabin to greet me.   As we stood there together on his verandah eyeing the load and he said the clincher was the indestructability of the new bottles, I had reservations.

Undeterred, Norm dropped the first bottle he grabbed on to the verandah stones and it promptly exploded and showered us with beer.  And another, and another.  He became possessed with the need to find just one bottle that would bounce and I had to restrain him else he would have gone through the whole load.

John Blaney-Murphy Returns to Birdsville with the Race Crowd


My old shooter mate from CGG John Blaney-Murphy examines a lizard he's found outside his Blitz living quarters somewhere in the desert in 1963.   John keeps in touch with a number of the surviving old hands and he and his wife Margaret continue to do so while on their current post-retirement tour around Australia.   They work for keep where they can find it.   Lately they've written me from North Queensland cattle stations they've looked after, caretaking, until the postcard I got from John signalled they'd reached Birdsville for the 2001 race meeting, thus far into their homeward bound leg to Perth.

A casual footnote on the card confirmed for me that John and Marg have always been ready with a kindness.   They couldn't help volunteering on the turnstiles, collecting admission money for the RFDS from punters in the first hour or so each day of the race carnival.   That's our John and Marg.

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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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