THEY’RE PUTTING AUSTRALIA’S SECRETS ON THE MAP
by Fred Dickenson (courtesy John Allen)
(Originally appeared in The Australian National Travel Association (ANTA) publication “Walkabout” of JULY 1968, pp30–33. ANTA was established on 1 July 1929, 'to place Australia on the world's travel map and keep it there' but ANTA was wound up in 1974
Early on a bright Sunday afternoon in January 1962, Jim Knight of Melbourne pushed forward on the throttle and sent his single-engine plane racing down the runway at Ceduna on the Great Australian Bight. He was heading for Forrest, 350 miles away, with a refuelling stop at Cook. His wife was flying by commercial airline from Melbourne to Perth, where he planned to join her.
The little plane lifted into the air, circled and headed for the first stop, only 190 miles away. Jim Knight was never again seen alive, although one of Australia's greatest search and rescue operations, involving 18 aircraft, which flew 26,000 miles in 19 days, was mounted for him.
More than three years later an aerial photography crew on assignment for the Department of National Development's Division of National Mapping, was methodically flying its pattern, 25,000 feet above the trackless waste of the Nullarbor Plain. At intervals of 55 seconds, a camera mounted in the belly of the plane clicked as it lumbered along at 185 knots. Each click meant that 150 square miles of the forbidding terrain below had been photographed.
When the day's shooting was done, the photos were dispatched to the division's office in Melbourne to become a part of perhaps Australia's most ambitious and difficult undertaking — the mapping of every one of the continent's 2,974,581 square miles. Within a day, a photogrammetrist (surveyor draughtsman) was examining the new prints minutely through a powerful stereoplotter, which would enable him to record even the height of the sandridges on a map. Suddenly, he stiffened, then signalled a superior excitedly. "Take a look in here," he said. The second man peered intently. "It's a small plane down between the ridges. We'd better radio that crew to take a closer shot."
Thus, the mystery of Jim Knight's disappearance was solved. And with it came a powerful reminder that the desert areas of Australia are still as pitiless as they were when they turned back or took the lives of the hardiest explorers. Hopelessly lost and far off his course, owing to a faulty compass, Knight had landed with the last of his fuel some 276 miles northwest of Ceduna.
The ground party, which soon started for the crash site, found, scratched on the fuselage of Knight's plane, his last poignant messages. He had landed uninjured. With a bag of oranges and two gallons of water he had waited confidently for the rescue that never came, although planes had searched within 83 miles of him. He had lived about a week in the withering heat, before he wrote: "I'll run out of water to-day." His last entry was his will and a message to his wife.
Officials directing the complicated and dangerous task of mapping Australia and its Territories cite this and similar tragedies in impressing its perils on the men whom, by air and ground vehicle, are putting the minutest details of the continent on paper for the first time. "I tell every man before he starts not to underestimate that country out there," says G. R. L. ("Rim") Rimington, veteran surveyor and assistant director of the mapping division in Canberra.
"I remind him that it's the same country that killed early explorers, and that it can kill again."
Only modern mapping aids — aerial photography and electronic measuring devices — plus tough, four-wheel-drive vehicles, are enabling the men of the division to map Australia in unprecedented detail. Now, after 20 years' work, the entire continent, Tasmania and Papua-New Guinea have been mapped on the classic world scale of "one to one million" in which one inch represents 16 ground miles.
Maps of one to 250,000 (one inch equals four miles) are being readied for printing. Says Bruce P. Lambert, director of national mapping, "Our goal for 1975 is a complete map of the Commonwealth on a scale of one to 100,000." Such a map, on which an inch equals 11 ground miles, can show buildings, fences and windmills of remote cattle stations, and desert details. A single map of Australia at this scale will involve laying side by side 3,000 separate 30-by-24-inch sheets. Such maps are especially valuable to the crews now searching for mineral and petroleum deposits. Knowing what direction the miles of sandridges lying ahead will take, for example, can save backbreaking and time-consuming ground travel. Much of the credit for recent important mineral and oil discoveries is being given to to-day's map-makers. For the first time, the rest of the world also is seeing Australia correctly; bone-dry lakes which formerly were shown in deceptive bright blue are now stippled an honest brown. (When Lake Eyre in South Australia suddenly filled up 18 years ago, for the first time within living memory, there was a body of water 100 miles long, 50 miles wide and, in places, 12 feet deep. It was not necessary to change its colour on new maps, however, because all the water disappeared within months.)
The maps of Australia now available are part of a programme first proposed by the great Viennese geographer, Albrecht Penck, in 1891. Penck suggested that all nations work to produce maps on such a scale that, combined, they would cover a globe about 36 feet in diameter — one millionth the size of the earth; hence the "one to one million" designation. Two great wars and other upheavals delayed the project. To-day not much more than half of the world is accurately mapped.
Australia presented more formidable problems than most areas of its size. By 1912, no more than 25 per cent had been mapped with any degree of accuracy. This was mainly around Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and in Tasmania, central South Australia and coastal Western Australia. Hundreds of thousands of square miles of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were blank.
Interest in recording Australia's unmapped areas leaped dramatically with the outbreak of war, in 1939. It was found that the charts in use of the northern coast were basically those of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N., in the 19th century. Fortunately, these were amazingly accurate, but a lesson had been driven home. When the war ended, mounting pressure for aeronautical charts and the possibility of spurring oil and mineral prospecting combined to force the issue; all Australia, it was decided, must be mapped.
The Division of National Mapping, the Royal Australian Army Survey Corps and the Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Service combined resources for the gigantic task. But more than high purpose was needed. The deciding impetus came with the invention of a new superwide-angle Swiss aerial camera (the Wild RC9), and, in 1957, the tellurometer from South Africa. Using micro-radio waves, the latter instrument can instantly and accurately measure lines up to 114 miles long. With these revolutionary surveying aids and four-wheel-drive vehicles, mapping progress zoomed.
Recently, I flew a simulated aerial photo-mapping mission over New South Wales with Chief Pilot Lionel Van Praag, of Adastra Aerial Surveys of Sydney. (There are at least four other commercial firms doing similar work for the mapping division.) He has flown planes which have mapped much of Australia, and he does not take his assignments lightly.
"It's important on these missions that you know your capabilities," the 59-year-old Van Praag says. "Some of the young fellows don't and it's easy to get into serious trouble." One of the perils is that the old Lockheed Hudson reconnaissance planes, chosen for their stability in photographic work are unpressurised, and crewmen constantly fly for hours at 25,000 feet, wearing oxygen masks. Anoxia, or chronic oxygen deficiency in the body tissues, is an ever-present danger, and the men are required to take tests for it regularly. Sudden and drastic changes in temperature also are a strain. "It can be 120 above on the desert when we take off," Van Praag says, "and a little while later it's 10 below zero at altitude."
Now, as we cruised down the south-eastern coast at moderate altitude to check equipment, a green light flashed on the $15,000 camera in the bay beneath the cockpit. "The camera is coming into its firing cycle," explained Brian Costello, who was acting as cameraman. "A red light also flashes on in front of the pilot, which tells him that he must keep the plane
on a straight and level course.
If we tilt a wing or change course, the photos won't be accurate enough for map work." Usually, the photo crew is a trio, and, in this instance, Ron Pearce, as navigator, pointed out the drift sight mounted in the plane's nose, which helps to keep it on exact course. "At 25,000 feet," he said, "the camera records 150 square miles on each shot. But the maps made from our pictures must be so accurate that we'll overlap each shot 60 per cent with the next. From the end of the area we're doing, we'll come back on the next leg over, overlapping those photos by 60 per cent also and the side edges 25 per cent. On a good day we still can map 6,000 square miles."
As a result of such care, 80,000 separate photographs from this trip were matched up by expert draughtsmen to produce the one-to-one-million series. With old-style equipment 240,000 pictures would have been needed.
What areas have proved the most difficult to photograph? Northern New Guinea was especially singled out because constant cloudiness forced a crew to spend five months getting in five hours of actual camera work. The cloudy northern coast of Tasmania was next, and the Cape York Peninsula ranked third with more clouds and high winds.
Although a temporary map of an area can be produced in a week from a photo mosaic, a truly accurate, permanent map requires the expert blending of aerial pictures with information obtained by ground teams which "control" the region by fixing positions horizontally and determining elevations. These resourceful men still face death daily. Unarmed, "because a stockman might think you were living off his herd," they have been menaced by everything from crocodiles to venomous and aggressive snakes.
Surveyor John Allen, a technical officer, was once stranded with an assistant on 13,500-foot Mount Victoria in New Guinea for five days, when heavy clouds prevented a helicopter pickup. They were forced to exist for that time on flour and water. "Another time," Allen recalls, "we were waiting on Mount Strong for the cloud to lift, when about 20 natives suddenly appeared. They crouched silently in a ring about us and we began to feel extremely apprehensive.
"Their leader approached, handed me a fragment torn from the corner of a pound note and demanded change. I didn't know what to do. I had no coins, so I decided to bluff. I opened my wallet, tore off the corner of a pound note, and exchanged it for the fragment he'd given me. The other natives thought this so funny that they roared with laughter. The leader's belligerence vanished, we all became friends, chatted and exchanged souvenirs until the helicopter came."
Heat, flies, incredibly rough terrain and lack of water combine to make the surveyor's life in the bush almost unendurable. Turnover rate is high — 25 to 30 per cent resign a year — although everything is done to dissuade recruits from joining in the first place. They are told of the difficulties: that there is little water for drinking, let alone washing, and that there are no women, wine or social life in the desert. Still, it is often the wife at home who cannot stand loneliness for six to eight months of the year. One young wife drove 1,200 miles to a remote surveying camp to take her husband home.
Besides being reminded of the dangers, surveyors venturing into the outback for the first time are also given friendly advice on "proper etiquette" in strange and distant areas. Says Assistant Director Rimington: "I tell them to leave things as they find them; for instance, not to close a gate they find open or vice versa. Closing a gate may cut off stock from water or end breeding. If they find a windmill not operating, they should tell the station owner. In the bush, you're everybody's mate, or you'll never be able to get your work done."
Australia's modern ground surveyors admit that the four-wheel‑drive truck and expert knowledge of how to use it are essential. For a month's expedition into the desert, for instance, these one-ton vehicles are each loaded with 180 gallons of fuel, giving them a range of about 900 miles, 50 gallons of water, food and surveying equipment. A sleeping bag is home, and baths for a month may be an occasional wipe-over with a wet handkerchief.
They have brought driving in sand, over sharp stony ground and on dry salt, lake beds to a high art. Smooth, oversize tyres (8.25 x 16), with no tread to dig in a stuck vehicle deeper, are used, and they are under-inflated to give easily on cutting edges that would puncture a high-pressure tyre. In sand they are further deflated. Failure to lower tyre pressure in sandy crossings has cost the lives of several people strange to the outback.
Fire is the surveyor's greatest worry. With a dependable vehicle, food, water and a transceiver radio with which to summon aid an expert on the area would appear to be well-nigh invulnerable to-day. But even a veteran of 40 years in the bush nearly lost his life and his truck through fire. "I was on the move one morning before daylight," he recalls. "I had only gone about 170 yards over the sandridges when I glanced behind and noticed a rosy glow at the back of the lorry. I had left the handbrake on, and friction had made the shaft red hot. It was setting fire to the high, tinder-dry spinifex as I drove along. Spinifex is so filled with resin that I have seen a hot exhaust pipe start it blazing". Flames were leaping toward the petrol supply on the rear of the truck as he ran back. Using his fire extinguisher would have meant finishing a 400-mile trip without one. Instead, he began throwing handfuls of sand on the blazing underbrush. Fortunately, they put out the fire before it reached the fuel.
But despite danger, an urge to "observe, record and inform"— the mapmaker's creed — very much like that which gripped the early explorers seems still to lure rugged men to far and perilous places. Australia's surveyors by air and land obviously will not be content until every tiny detail of the continent is on the one-to-100,000 map.
Aerial photograph to final map of Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria.
Hand and automated scribing
Complex stereoscopic equipment has greatly simplified the cartographer's task. It enables extremely accurate details to be incorporated in modern maps.