FROM THE ARCHIVES

In a complex triple-farmout operation, French Petroleum appointed a distantly associated French outfit called Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) to perform the seismic survey of the southern Simpson and thus determine the worth of its joint prospects with the Australian/American leaseholder Delhi/SANTOS.

CGG hired Adelaide earthmoving firm Roche Bros to carve a path forward for them.   Meet the bulldozing crew that finally offered up the Simpson Desert's long-held secrets for scrutiny by the community at large.


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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

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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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Bulldozing a Desert

The Roche Bros Highway

Compagnie Generale de Geophysique


As if to keep at arms' length, CGG chose to put their HQ in South Brisbane and French Petroleum Company of Australia (FPCA) opened up in Adelaide in SANTOS' building.   FPCA were already well-known in Australia per medium of their rapidly expanding filling stations carrying the TOTAL brand of petrol and oils.

The initial thrust to prove the worth of oil prospects was traditionally entrusted to the seismic survey crews, who would probe the strata underfoot and report back to the leaseholders when favourable formations were met.  It was then that the heavy drilling rigs would be called to spud in the chosen well-site.   So it was in early 1963 that the CGG seismic survey party S6507 were charged with opening up the Simpson Desert to the oilmen and women of the country by prying out the innermost of the desert's long-held secrets.

Mechanic and Dozer Driver


What a motley blend of roughness and toughness this crew turned out to possess!   And the wildest and woolliest of all were the bulldozer drivers and their mechanics.    Peter McCormack and his driver Tom Campbell are seen at left lounging about the cab of a campsite Blitzwagon in a rare inactive moment.    Mechanics and drivers alike were invariably carving a way ahead 25km in front of the main encampment during all daylight hours and seven days a week, too, pushed by their employer, Roche Bros of Adelaide.

Roche Bros had the contract to build the road for CGG.    They started out to build a path up to 15m or over two D7 dozer blades wide on the crests and narrowing to as little as 5m on the swales, but over 400km long.    That they broke through and did the job in three months is a remarkable feat of endurance under extreme privation.   That road is now known as the French Line and as those visitors who have driven along it in recent times will testify, the dozers are welcome back, for the runups to the crests on both sides now resemble patches of moguls you'd expect to find on the snowfields, only more potentially damaging in the extreme.

Could It Take So Long?


"Birdsville or Bust", they chalked on the blade of a D7.   It was a challenge back then in 1963, no less of a challenge as it would be now and a wag among them added an impatient protest of "1973" on the radiator cowl, as if men could be confined for 10 years longer, let alone 10 weeks in this environment without a break.    Mick Smith is shown here on the driver's plate, with Wally Gregory looking on.

These were the days without rules, when a machine would backblade and chop out windrows and make giant ramps to get the trucks over and back every day.    Similarly, there was no respite for the drivers from the cloying dust rising from the dozer tracks.   On a still day they had nothing but a handerchief wrapped around the jaws in a vain effort to keep the dust out of nose and mouth.

When a camp move was on, which was about every two weeks on the average, it involved packing and picking up the camp living quarters and coaxing and/or dragging the wagons 25km or so over the dunes to the next appointed spot.   It wasn't unusual but nonetheless noteworthy to see a driver who had 'walked' his steed back for these regular coaxing duties suddenly appear out of the cloud of dust enveloping his machine.   While the dozer walked on, he'd leave the controls and the machine to itself so he could come out for a breath of fresh air.

Heading up the Convoy


A huge plume of Lake Thomas salt and gypsum trails behind the convoy as it makes its way to the temporary camp.    This photo by John McFayden is one of the very few taken on what the CGG members refer to as the 'Long Haul'.   This was over a 100km, six day and night slog from CGG Camp 9 (63.2 miles before Poeppels Corner, for those who'd like to pinpoint the campsite) and into Queensland, parallel to, but short of Eyre Creek.

The Caterpillar D7 has four of the Blitzwagon semitrailers hitched up and under tow, a sure sign that the breakdowns on the day's run had left no room on the schedule for further delay.   The Blitzes were mostly given their head on the smaller dunes, gobbling them up in their stride even with up to 17 tons on the back and invariably let loose on the flats or swales as well.    However, if one of the prime movers were to become next to immobile following a failed run at a dune, drop a spring, throw a pot or lose a fuel line to spinifex, the mechanics would hook them all up together and bring 'em in steady, even if at only 3mph!

Bulldozer on the Crest


John McFayden has been caught, posed with his legs apart and camera at the ready in the shadow cast by the afternoon sun as he snaps a bulldozer on the crest of a huge Simpson Desert sand hill.   The red-baked liquid dust of the dunes contrasts with the eclipse effect of the sun's rays and all is separated by a tufty border of spinifex spikes.

Dune depths up to 12m were gouged from the tops of the larger hills by the dozer blades and huge runups constructed from the waste in an effort to lower the angle of ascent.   Shoulders of up to 30m wide either side of the cutting were wrought from the hilltops to lessen cave-ins.    Today, practically all that can be seen of the French Line is the view point-to-point from one of these shoulders to the crest of another as in the swales the 'Line has lost its surveyed straightness in deference to the meanderings of countless 4WDrivers who have followed in our path.

The Roche Bros Fly-camp


The bulldozers were preceded as one would expect, by a survey team a day or two in advance, marking as they went with red and white plastic streamers placed every 600m as a guide to the straight line that was to be CGGs 'Line B'.    It may not take much thought for the average person in understanding the feeling of less-than-awe held by the original CGG members towards the runners and walkers, cyclists and pram-pushers of the Simpson of recent times who jostle to be called in 'first' in whichever mode of transport the combatants settle on.

Anyone aware that the surveyor for CGG, Roy Elkins, walked, chaining, all the way across in the manner of Charles Sturt could be tempted to say, so what? but while he often took turns with his offsider and drove the Dodge weapon-carrier to or from the fly-camp base he shared with the dozer men, he worked and walked his way across and was never heard to complain.    Roy had a wooden leg and unlike those who have the luxury of his road such as it is now, Roy missed out - for the road he was directing was always behind him.   Roy was often left to trudge between the raw spinifex and gidgee clumps to make his way.

Scoop Greets a Blitz


The Scoopmobile stands in attendance as a Blitzwagon hauls its caravan-trailer through the cutting in the sandhill, on its way to the next campsite.    The Blitzes were ex-Army 6-cylinder Chevs, not unlike those used on Birdsville Track mailruns in the past although many of those, including those driven by Tom Kruse, were Fords.   Workers mounted and demounted the four caravans into service as a prefab dormitory, a kitchen and bathhouse, an office and a workshop sporting a 2kVa Lister generator.

A fifth caravan served as the distant fly-camp where the dozer men ate, drank, fought and slept.    Usually they fought the unfortunate cook who had been assigned to feed them.    They never seemed to keep a cook past two weeks, due in the main to the death-wish that led each succeeding cook to polish off the beer stocks while the occupants were out all day on the 'Line.   The beleaguered fly-camp cooks would snatch it in fear of their lives and take a quick ride on the next supply truck out.   So, the dozer drivers would have to fight among themselves for a fortnight until the next truck came in with a replacement cook.

The Roche Bros All-purpose Scoopmobile


The Pages, an English migrant family who perished at Goyders Lagoon enroute from Marree to Birdsville on Christmas Eve, 1963 while CGG were on leave, were buried with the help of this machine by the Birdsville policeman Sergeant Eric Sammon.    Ironically, while the tragic five were thirsting to death, nearby at Gidgealpa the first oilstrike of the Great Artesian Basin came in, the same evening they dated their fateful 'walk-away' note.

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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 


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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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