Leylands' Tough Simpson Desert Sector
"Where Dead Men Lie"
One of the Original 'All-Off-Road' Crossings of the Simpson
The wish of the Leyland Bros to be first to drive across the Simpson Desert was dashed at the desert edge when they fortuitously met one of the workers who had built the French Line, one 'Bluey' Wells. This stroke of good luck gave them the chance to change course slightly to avoid stumbling upon the seismic tracks around Poeppels Corner and the French Line itself and having to admit following the well-travelled paths of other vehicles.
The Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) oilsearch team had built a massive access road across the middle of the Simpson three years prior to the arrival of the Leyland party and the adventuring brothers must have been perplexed at the activity everywhere they went as a direct result of our road, so it was no small feat for them to cross in a part of the desert where few people were to be found. Otherwise, it was like Pitt Street out there in some parts.
Tackling the Toughest Route Possible
Crossing elsewhere than through the middle allowed the Leylands to claim they had driven through country no man had driven through before and so maintain faith with the sponsors' expectations. It was an outcome difficult to disprove owing to the northern Simpson sector being sparsely populated at the time. From their own account it is clear that they were able to cross without bothering to call in on Poeppels Corner, the desert's best-known landmark and without being spotted by too many more oilworkers. Although the Leylands noted lots of seismic tracks and bulldozer activity, none of their contacts owned up on the record to having driven across even once.
Mike and Mal's transcontinental achievement was noteworthy in itself and the authenticity of their Simpson Desert leg went unchallenged publicly for many years, due to me and my mates being unaware for so long of the version touted by the brothers. Uncovering their oversight came about this way. Following an airing with Ian Macnamara on the ABC's "Australia All Over" program in April 1993 I had an instant response on the phones. By the end of the day I had spoken with three of my old mates from the desert and twenty of us were in touch or knew where the others were within six months of the radio broadcast. Well done, Macca!
CGG Make Use of Their Highway to Poeppels Corner
We began exchanging old photos and memorabilia from those days spent together in the Simpson Desert and I set about organising the surviving CGG party members into an official group and so the non-profit Friends of the French Line was formed. In setting it up, a lawyer colleague said he thought that the Leyland Bros had driven across the Simpson Desert before us and they had made a successful movie about their exploits called "Wheels Across a Wilderness".
Their movie played all round the country in public halls. I had not seen it nor read the book which was long out of print, but I was interested in all things Simpson at this stage and duly contacted the Leylands in February 1994.
It was Mike I talked to first on the phone. I identified myself as the former administration officer for CGG, the party that built the road across the desert. So far so good. He was friendly and co-operative at the idea of a re-union crossing promotion and if the Leylands are good at their work, they are tops at promotion. He suggested I fax a bit of background and then we might be able to get together. Sending that fax heralded an abrupt end to discussions. I didn't know why at the time.
"Oil Men Leaving Mark in Simpson Desert"
My fax to Mike Leyland that day in 1994 described how CGG built the French Line across the Simpson Desert in 1963 as an access road for the seismic survey we conducted for French Petroleum. At this stage I didn't know in what year they crossed but figured if it was after my party went through in 1963 they would surely have followed CGG's direct route along the French Line to save time, and innocently put that question in my fax.
The penny dropped for me a couple of years on when I picked up a paperback reprint of "Where Dead Men Lie" and was astounded to read the following statement on the back cover :
"Never before had motor vehicles made the treacherous journey across the 'killer' Simpson Desert which lay in their path".
It was an arresting claim and one I felt should be disputed because while it was without foundation, I could see upon reflection how the editors had contrived to keep the perception alive while masking the truth. The cute phrase "which lay in their path" would be effective in defusing criticism - for the Leylands might have anticipated a shellacking from any of the many thousands of oilworkers who had followed Reg Sprigg and ourselves in driving across before them. The significance of these carefully-chosen words as a cover began to assume giant proportions with me, which was disturbing for I'd never given the Leylands a thought over the years. It was more than puzzling. Yes, they were first to drive across the Simpson in their path, but why qualify the achievement at all?
Bluey Wells Cutting a Waste Sump for the CGG Camp
Mike Leyland had my fax showing CGG's crossing was three years before they crossed and I now had his account in front of me proving they were suss in anything said about the Simpson Desert. I couldn't work out why they would not admit they had heard about this great big road carved through the middle of it that every man and his dog was using to drive across - and, why was it they missed out calling in on Poeppels Corner, electing to keep well to the north of it?
I expected readers wouldn't care less if the Leylands had admitted using our 420km pathway to Birdsville in three days instead of the drama-filled twenty-two days they took, because the book was a good read anyway.
Unless, I mused, they held back their discovery with respect to their generous sponsors who might care more for a torrid crossing than for a good news one. Progress reports and payments were noted in the book as being exchanged during the journey after all and the Leylands seem to have obstinately denied the existence of the three-year-old French Line for no good reason. It was in all the papers! Strange, I thought, they'd keep that a secret from their readers when the French Line was itself one of the good news stories of Australia's outback. By the coming of the Leylands, the academics had begun streaming in as well as the oil men and women - for there was a reliable way in and out.
A Few Drinks Around the CGG Campfire for Bluey
Now it was clear why I became persona non grata with the Leylands so abruptly. Finding the book led me to query every claim and qualification they made but I could only expect that they told their sponsors, among them companies like Drug Houses of Australia, that they would be the first party to drive across the "killer desert". The recurring theme in the book about being "first, as far as we knew" quoted in such a vague manner, meant to me a major change in tune had set in and that a coverup was under way - that they knew immediately before they entered the desert that their claims were spurious and the brothers were thus vulnerable to exposure so they had better tone things down in print. I became eager to know how they projected these aspirations and achievements on film because at that stage I'd not seen their movie.
It must have been a dynamite blow to learn about the existence of a road right across the middle of a desert they had planned to conquer so grandly in their transcontinental expedition. Most likely the bad news was first broken to them by Mac Clark of Andado or Bluey Wells, the bulldozing subbie who worked for Roche Bros. The Leylands noted meeting them both at the start of their encounter with the Simpson Desert. Mac hauled fuel and supplies from the siding at Abminga to the Erabena rig on the French Line about 40 miles west of Poeppel in 1966, the year the Leylands crossed.
They recorded several conversations with Mac Clark, none of which mentioned his knowledge of the existence of our road or his regular use of it. On page 132 they reported telling Mac their aim was to be the first people to cross from Andado to Birdsville which to my thinking was like driving Sydney to Melbourne via Broken Hill. They even quoted him saying,
"It's rough out there boys, I don't like your chances. Why don't you go south a hundred miles or so? I believe the ridges are lower down there".
More than likely Mac would have added the postcript " ... and there's a bloody big road down there too".
The Horizontal Champion of the Simpson
Over Christmas 2000 I found a hardcover copy of their book which, although otherwise identical page for page with the paperback had an extra comment tacked on to the claim Never before had motor vehicles made the treacherous journey across the 'killer' Simpson Desert ... that was edited out of the later Walkabout edition. Perhaps you'd too suffer five busted diffs if you were grandstanding for your sponsors and doing it the hard way for your movie :
"... with Mike's wife Pat acting as 'housewife' and cook and Ted Hayes labouring through five broken differentials to keep the tortured vehicles running the goal was reached."
I found they had quite another version of events, when in 2002 I got to see "Wheels Across a Wilderness", their screen epic, courtesy of the helpful Simon Drake of Screensound. My private screening revealed a dramatised whirl of G-classified entertainment typical of the sixties; lots of family moments and fun, with the facts of the earlier written record being left out, perhaps for the sake of the wider community desire for danger and intrigue mixed with a bit of harmless frolicking. No personal endorsements from Molly or Mac Clark of Andado, no Bluey Wells, no desert camps nor encounters with oil working teams get a lookin as they had in contrast been so freely quoted in the book. The psuedo American accent of narrator Byron Prouton urged that the Leyland effort was the :
"... first crossing of the Simpson by motor..."
... a claim that the Spriggs of Arkaroola have special rights to join with CGG in refuting.
Bluey's Hard Won French Line Across the Simpson
It's inconceivable that Bluey Wells forgot to mention his road to the Leyland Bros, a road as wide as two bulldozer blades and 420km long, considering it was a reasonably recent experience for him - pushing road plant across the desert twelve hours a day for three months on end without a break. It would tend to stick in the memory.
Poor old Bluey passed away some time ago. Despite the Leylands happily writing up meeting Bluey, they then left him out of their movie altogether. That is wacky, for Bluey was a flamboyant character deserving of a roughneck role in any production. His omission shows that dead men can help tell the tales of others from the truth after all. Anyway, if in doubt always recommend people to :
Ask the Leyland Brothers.