by Gabriel Lafitte (written in early 1970s - source unknown – courtesy John Allen)
It's not easy to find men like Bill Johnson, John Allen or Syd Kirkby these days.
Men who spend eight or nine months of the year completely alone in the remotest reaches of central Australia, coping with any emergencies without assistance.
Men who know how to bluff a tribe of New Guinea natives, who suddenly confront them, armed with bows and arrows. Men who brave the 100 mph blizzards of Antarctica.
These are the men who, from the air and on the ground, are helping to map every square inch of Australia and its territories.
They work for the Department of National Development's National Mapping Division, which has its main office in Canberra, with the topographic headquarters in Melbourne.
But there aren't many who want to follow for very long in the path of these trailblazing surveyors. Bill Johnson, 63, said: “Most of our new recruits spend two or three years with us and then leave. "We warn them they will have to live without feminine company; that they'll be on tinned food continuously; that they might have to go for a fortnight without a proper wash; that they'll have to hold their surveying instruments completely steady while flies swarm about their faces”.
"They still join us, get a couple of years' experience, and then the mining companies snap them up with offers of pay up to double what they receive here."
Bill Johnson's surveying work on the ground is as vital as the aerial photography which has revolutionised map-making in the past 25 years. Because the aerial shots each cover 150 square miles, some distortion is inevitable. Further inaccuracies can be caused by the plane tipping or tilting slightly during flight. These faults can be corrected by viewing the photos through the $185,000 stereomat at the Mapping Division's Melbourne operational headquarters.
It is a sophisticated machine imported from America which shows the photographs in three dimensions. But before distortions can be corrected, the exact positions and heights of certain points along the ground must be fixed by men on the ground.
This is where Bill Johnson, and his 60 colleagues, who cover Australia, Antarctica, and New Guinea at ground level, come in.
One of them, John Allen, 33, who now operates the stereomat, was once involved in a surprise confrontation with armed New Guinea highlanders after being dropped by helicopter on to the top of a 13,500 foot peak.
"At that height the clouds were below us, ringing the mountain, with a clear sky above”.
"Suddenly a group of 20 natives, armed with spears, and bows and arrows emerged from the clouds, climbing towards us”. "They had no clothes as such, apart from the leader, who wore a World War II military jacket coated in pig grease to keep him warm”.
"To test us out, he came up to me and thrust a dirty piece of paper torn from an old pound note at me”. "He wanted coins, but I didn't have any, so I decided to bluff him”. "I took a new pound note from my wallet, tore off a corner, and offered it to him. "His face fell, but all the other natives' faces lit up, and the tension disappeared".
The result of the surveying is 18 by 23 inch maps, each covering 6000 square miles, at a scale of four miles to the inch.
It will take nearly 600 maps to cover all of Australia and New Guinea.
Australia's Antarctic territory, an area 80 per cent as big as Australia, presents even greater mapping problems.
To cover the Antarctic territory at the same scale will eventually require nearly 500 maps.
Syd Kirkby, 36, who was awarded a MBE in 1965 for his pioneering work in Antarctic map-making, said: "It's a demanding, but fascinating place to work. When I first started working in the Antarctic 14 years ago, the surveying party would be just three or four men with a team of dogs or small tracked vehicles, on the ice for a whole year”.
"Now the parties are far more productive because there are more men, all of them specialists, and they have helicopters as well as planes, and much better equipment”. "They generally stay only for the three summer months”.
"But I'm glad to be desk- bound again."