ALIVE IN THE DEAD HEART

The enigmatic Simpson is at once Gregory's 'Dead Heart', Finlayson's 'Red Centre', Barry Paine's 'Green Centre', Clune's 'Red Heart' and then Madigan's 'One True Desert'.    George Farwell dubbed the region the 'Land of Mirage'.

Australians continue to be in awe and in ignorance of the Simpson Desert.    It qualifies as Australia's final frontier, unwanted, uninhabited.    Many travellers burst through in three days or less just for the thrill of it and others take the 'line of least resistance' - the Rig Road and less arduous variations.


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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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What's the French Line Really Like?

Simpson Desert Comparisons

The 1998 Vintage Rover Reunion


In 1963 Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) personnel saw the Dalhousie to Poeppels Corner section of the desert, the path of the French Line, as no other Europeans had seen it:  three months solid work alongside the fresh-carved seismic access road brought to them an unsurpassed concentration of views by a greater number of travelling people of a wider perspective and over a greater period of time than ever experienced in the Simpson Desert before or since.

In an unprecedented occurrence, six of the original CGG workers returned to the Simpson 35 years to the day, celebrated July 1st 1998, on a reunion pilgrimage organised by the Land Rover Owners Club of Victoria (LROCV) who were themselves enjoying a 35 year formation anniversary to culminate in a Vintage Crossing of Landies from the period.   It had been on that day in 1963 that thirty or so other CGG expeditioners had set out from Mt Dare with the six to tame the Simpson Desert with its first heavy-vehicle mass crossing.

Growth of Vegetation in the Simpson Surprises


On their return, the CGG six were confronted with the spectacle of change.   Although it appeared from the air to be its old, straight self, the French Line was now very much a crooked affair.   Only from crest to crest was the old directness seen.   Considering the meanderings on the swales and the ever-widening paths on claypans, it was only the next peak to be climbed that seemed to get drivers focused again on the straight and narrow.

A remarkable feature was the awareness of up to five generations of growth in the average swale.   The men all agreed that 35 years ago only three generations of scrub, bushes, spinifex clumps and whatever else were present on the average but now, an extra couple were mostly seen.    This was a tribute to the unusually extended good seasons as much to the absence of the feral predators they had expected to see.   Camels are the greatest threat, then and now but contrary to the numbers they encountered years before when the country was much the poorer, sightings and even evidence of camel presence was low.

35 Years Without Maintenance


They came upon swales that looked familiar, an eery feeling.    Everything in view was more generous and tightly packed though still no outstanding height improvement in the mature gidyeas was noted.    There was consensus that the trees grew perhaps a foot or two at best over the intervening years.

Damage caused by seismic exploration teams in full swing on the earth's surface is horrendous and possibly longer-lasting in a more fragile environment than the Simpson Desert.    In an age when there were no rules, the CGG survivors were conscious so much of their daily acts and omissions would be judged as offending today's eco-codes, and yet - there was not a trace of their more outrageous activities to be found, except the French Line itself and there was precious little of that left.   Not an inch of windrow, that cursed trail left by dozer drivers, not a blast-hole to be seen.   They couldn't even pinpoint a single campsite and there had been five on the route.    Above, John Blaney-Murphy and Kevin Murphy admire one of their permanent markers from 1963.

Another Victim on Spring Creek


Pools of rainwater on the French Line led contemporary drivers to divert from the beaten path and this enabled new growth of spinifex and gidyea to get a kick-along.   As the diversions became the real track if only for a season, the new growth prospered undisturbed and became an obstacle itself that ensured its preservation.

However, traffic on the route since the French Line became popular with recreational four-wheel drivers over the past ten years or so has seen the 'Line become more firmly defined than it was in the years of disuse following the withdrawal of the oilmen and women.   There had been a time when experienced Simpson Desert hands like the late Reg Sprigg reported in 1964 that the road had disappeared entirely, except for the huge cuttings on the crests.

Giant Ramps Were Needed


A mere handful of the workers whose efforts were responsible for opening up the Simpson Desert to traffic survive today - only about twenty people.   Those who have returned in recent years, about half their number, are staggered at the differences they have seen.   They are surprised that the massive ramps and the huge sand windrows created by the bulldozers to get the semi-trailers over the crests, are gone - flattened totally and the French Line eroded.

The increase in new growth of herbage and gidyea shoots amazed them, as did the obvious signs of frequent rains in every part of the way (and it rained for the six CGG pilgrims each morning or night on their 1998 trip back).   They cannot believe the contradiction that bird and animal life they saw in abundance in 1963 when conditions were as normal for a desert as could be expected - i.e., dry, harsh and unforgiving, cannot be found these days in the midst of plenty.

Future of the French Line


The Simpson Desert is the great Australian Survivor.   It will deal with its pests as it has done since the seas began abating 120,000 years ago, creating its dunes.    Overgrazing by relatively recently-introduced cattle, camels, donkeys, brumbies, rabbits, mice and goats and their predators the cat and fox, results in temporary loss of foliage and leads to land degradation but inevitably the climate and the below-ground invertebrates are on the side of the Simpson.

In recent times of bonus rainfall, propagation of desert foliage has been hindered by the inexplicable absence of native bees to speed things along.    While there is groundwater lying about the ferals penetrate further into desert country than usual and if they haven't given the bees a chance they feed on one another and everything until nothing is left of animal life or vegetation.   The survivors withdraw when the water supply dries up.   In the summer the process is swifter and the animals get stranded.   The carcases of the vanquished are consumed by the invertebrates, the battlefield is clear once more and the desert begins again its rehabilitation cycle.    Thus far neither native, explorer, oilman or tourist has affected the desert and may never get the chance.

In its review of the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve conducted by the SA Dept for Environment Heritage and Aboriginal Affairs in 1998, recommendations were made for the reserve to remain in the care of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and that a plan for the area's management be formulated.    In the future that could result in a call for the French Line to be closed to recreational traffic.

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Coles Express Picks on a Pensioner .....
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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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