“1965 Aerial Reconnaissance of the Tanami Desert

for the Helen Springs – Ord River section of the Geodetic Survey”

by H.A. (Bill) Johnson


H.A. Johnson recalled his 1965 aerial reconnaissance of the Tanami Desert in a handwritten (in the familiar blue ink), 10 foolscap page letter, dated 6 January 1980, to Dr David Nash, Visiting Fellow Australian National University. For easier reading the original letter has been transcribed and for privacy reasons some information had been omitted. The photographs and maps have also been added. Thanks to David for scanning his original and supplying XNATMAP with a copy (Paul Wise, 2013).




My [HAJ’s] own limited involvement in the claim area [under NT Land Rights Act] was a routine reconnaissance to decide on the most practicable survey route from Muckaty Homestead to Hooker Creek settlement in the general vicinity of where it was eventually located, selecting at the time, proposed inter-visible instrument stations, marking the route (blazed shields on trees large enough [Figure 1 show examples of HAJ’s work], plastic ribbon hung in scrub, small piles, clearing).




Figure 1 : Examples of HAJ’s blazed shields and “famous kipper tin (actually aluminium as it does not rust)” markers.

The photo on the right, taken by David Nash in 1981, is from a marker found north of Papunya.


The subsequent access notes detailed the clearing and marking materials required round a station, type of beacon, height of some towers needed to see over the scrub, going conditions, magnetic bearings, running mileages, and anything which somehow might reduce the inordinate cost of any survey foray anywhere, not least the assembling at some remote start of 10 or more members and 6 or so vehicles, having already crossed most of Australia, and whether a ground-hugging survey or whether a ground-supplied and controlled air-borne survey.


Since the area was known to be free of hills or ranges and fairly thickly scrubbed in places, including the notorious ‘Turpentine’ (a reddish barked, steel branched acacia, whose specific name eludes me at the moment {known as Minnaritchie in WA}), it was decided before leaving Melbourne that a flight over the proposed route would be advisable as a preliminary. [Figure 2 is a map of the Tanami area showing the reconnaissance flight route].



Figure 2 : Map of Tanami area showing reconnaissance flight route.


Before leaving Alice Springs, I met with Fred Ulyatt who had recently retired to live there. He mentioned he had been as far west as Yabbagalonga Ridge, and that there was some fairly thick scrub West of Ladabah Bore on the Tomkinson floodout. This was so and to reduce the risk of costly staked tyres and delay for the party to follow, two days were spent in removing fallen trees, rolling off antnests and axing a cleared track for 6 miles, when better going opened - and giving some wonder when told next year the party had difficulty in following this.


Generally it was good going across the chosen survey route, with several belts of thick acacia mostly standing dead from the devastating drought which, except for sporadic, lottery-type storms, had prevailed over the NT since 1957.


There were some lumpy areas of low, very solid antnest mounds, crouching heavily and hidden in the spinifex, occasionally of just the right height and texture to buckle even the formidable protective bar over the tie-rod, or crush in a sump or differential if struck unwarily and unluckily.


Also there were memorably beautiful sections, including gentle floodout, open park.


The thickest belt of dead acacia was met about 20 miles East of the Hooker Creek – Ware Hill road, and arrangements were made with the Superintendent at Hooker Creek, for a party from the settlement to clear a track through it for the survey party next year.


The reconnaissance was made from 24 May to 11 June 65.


Although lacking hills as normally accepted (there were of course, the initial useful Yabbagalonga Ridge and several low stony rises), the route traversed the usual low, rather widely spaced undulating country of which so much of Australia is comprised, whether the limestoney Nullarbor, through sandridges or over firm planes. Any degree of difficulty therefore, from a survey aspect, on a wide, rolling unpretentious top, is likely to be in proportion to the density and height of its scrub or tree cover.


The truck used was an International 30cwt [30 hundredweight or 1.5 tons], 4x4, with 50 gallons of water and 135 gallons of petrol all in built-in tanks, fitted with heavy duty normal road-tread 8.25” x 16" tyres, and screened against spinifex husks and fluff.


These 30cwt Internationals, specially protected and fitted out from years of bush experience, were magnificent vehicles for off-track survey work, with high clearance and visibility and great reserve power. Including earlier Landrovers, as sole companion and guardian in remote places I always became very attached to any I used and treated it accordingly. None ever held me up in the bush, where other help was needed for us to proceed. [Figure 3 : HAJ’s vehicles 1958-1962].



Figure 2 : HAJ’s vehicles  - (L-R) Landrover LWB S1 near Giles circa 1958, International AA120 west of Jupiter Well 1961 and International AB120 1962 east of Callawa, WA.


Two punctures were received on the trip, and the speedometer cable torn out in the last thick acacia belt – replaced with a spare cable, the coupling to the propeller shaft was later shielded to avoid any such rare reoccurrence to this essential component.


The few sandridges seen presented no difficulty, being low and running with the traverse.


For those who really like the bush, insects are likely to be one of the few aversions, and ranking highest in this order of dislikeables are probably ants (especially green-headed and bulldog), mosquitoes, and flies (March, Sand, Blow, Bush). They are undeterrable to death.


Only twice before in a lifetime have I seen them as prolific as on this 1965 sortie – in early 1955 during the great wet, South-west of Lake Eyre – and in late 1957 on the old Coniston to the Granites track, unused for years, near Mt Theo, and on through the Tanami, to Gordon Downs and Halls Creek, but particularly round the Tanami, where in the early morning they were joined in black festoons on every bowed spinifex stalk, being in flower, during the day literally blinding in swarming frenzy, and an hour or so after dark, with the rise of the nearly full moon, on again ‘til the cool about 0200hrs or so.


In March or April 1965 there had been 3-4 inches of rain over a wide band which included Hooker Creek and Muckaty. The spinifex, with the rest of the flora, burgeoned and took off, as did the ever biding fly pupae in their trillions.


So they were ready and impatiently awaiting my arrival, but this time, at least, it was not to be so one-sided, since my can of Scram [almost legendary insect-repellent, worn like deodorant for maximum protection, as it did as its name implied with remarkable efficiency] and I were ready and waiting, too, with a long score to even up.


On one occasion I forgot to close a side window whilst away for about an hour. On my return there were thousands of flies entrapped in the cabin, like demented electrons, and I must concede to a twinge of enormous satisfaction as they were brushed out in last-twitch heaps - not without some further satisfaction, also, to work unmolested in the open in my invisible aura, and to hear them tangent off in shocked skids.


There were no cattle, nor had there been over most of the area, nor anywhere near the Tanami in 1957. Flies are clearly in the pollution industry, and very few, to their teeming swarms, must ever see any creature bigger than another fly, yet every fly has this congenital addiction for any animal, whatever its size, capable of expressing a hint of moisture, the fouler the better.


There is probably not an Australian explorer’s journal without reference to the misery and torment which flies inflicted on them, and on their horses, usually so brutally treated at best.


The tolerance and indifference of the aborigine, from earliest infancy, to one of nature's least lovable evolvements, are rather surprising in view of his observance and knowledge of other creatures sharing his natural environment. Distressing memories crowd in of particularly lustrous, deep eyes, but rimmed with undisturbed, gorging black clusters of horror, regurgitating and resiphoning their last meal of unspeakable filth - and all too often the scarred eyelids sign-posting the trachoma-hedged track which fades into darkness.


A pity the anti-pesticider could not see some of these sights, and some of the final results – could not spend unrelieved months in the bush under plague conditions a few absurd cork charms abob before his eyes, or with a hundred or two tireless friends sharing the protection beneath his sweltering, stifling flynet, this latter distracting only its already distraught wearer, and just as futile as the former supposed deterrent.


Other than a brief meeting with Whitlock I am unable to supply detail of others you mention who have travelled the claim area, you have no doubt read Davidson's journal, which I read over 20 years ago. An old friend of mine Gee, was Warden at the Tanami diggings (outside the claim area). A retired surveyor from SA Survey Department, he first suggested my becoming a field cadet, (when a youth of 18 in 1925, having just left school) in the then Lands & Survey Department, before it later degenerated into Lands Department. Gee used to write articles in the ‘Register’, a SA daily newspaper and also published an interesting booklet of experiences.


One of the earlier travellers near the Eastern border of the claim (whom I well remember meeting as a boy of 7), when he was visiting my father was Pat Auld, who accompanied John McDouall Stuart on the final 1862 crossing [of Australia, south to north]. Unfortunately at that age one does not understand or appreciate the magnitude of that achievement to ask the endless questions which would come tumbling now.


So far, however, it has been a traditional all male cast and a change of gender seems overdue, not just for a variety act but to record a spectacular performance by a girl, of which I was sole, privileged, still impressed audience.


Understandably, pilots dislike low-flying - there is little or no margin for pilot error or inattention, or machine failure - and some pilots have shown such reluctance to come down that much of the value of this expensive exercise is nullified in inhibited attempts.


So in calling at Connellan’s [original NT airline for freight, charter and passengers] office to confirm the reconnaissance charter, it was also to clarify that it was longer and lower than usually sought.


The briefing pilot said he understood, the Beechcraft Travel Air (please refer to Figure 4 below) was to be used, being a required twin for the area, and Captain Christine Davy would be the pilot.



Figure 4 : Beechcraft Travel Air VH-FDX after passing to the Royal Flying Doctor Service after service with Connellan's as VH-CLK.



Seeing my expected look of surprise (after all a female commercial pilot in 1965 was a rara avis [an unusual, uncommon, or exceptional person or thing], though in anti-discriminatory, enlightened 1979, she can readily transmute into a stormy petrel) the briefing pilot added I would find Captain Davy would fly as required.


Before sun-up next morning, at first take-off light from its town strip, this graceful machine came sweeping over the range to the main ‘7 mile’ from which all passengers had to depart [The original Connellan airstrip at Alice Springs was on the north side of the MacDonnell Ranges close to the town. During WW2 a RAAF airstrip was built 7 Nautical miles south, over the ranges and is the site of the main airport today. Just after the war when both airstrips were in use the newer strip was known as “7 Mile”. Maps at Figures a b show airports location then and now].




Figure 5 : Section of map showing Alice Springs – Left from 1959 map clearly showing “Town” and “7 Mile” airstrips and right from 2008 map showing airport today.

(Note the old “Town” airport location is still marked by a Connellan hangar but Memorial Avenue and Van Senden Avenue has replaced the old runways).


Tanks were topped at Tennant Creek, Mt Willieray and Yabbagalonga closely examined, then it was down and bee-lining along the direct bearing to Hooker Creek.


With the wheels surely brushing and reaping the spinifex in seed, or clipping the top leaves of the higher scrub, “Is this low enough for you?”, I was asked.


Which is how we skimmed all 200 miles towards Hooker Creek to clear the last low undulation and see, lying directly along the nose, two miles or so dead ahead, the settlement houses.


At literally zero ground clearance it was consummate flying and navigation.


After briefly landing at Hooker Creek, it was on, (with the survey aspect immediately improving with the scattering of low hills) to Birrindudu, thence returning Easterly near 18° parallel, which was a less attractive survey route.


The low reconnaissance finished at the bitumen, and it was South to Tennant, then back to Alice with the ground loitering past mile below, to receive the Sun’s last wink as we crossed the MacDonnell's and to my forth thistle-down landing.


For the passenger it was, and remains, an enviable trip over always beautiful country, and it included an enlightening flight over a possibly troublesome survey connection; for him, it was to sit comfortably, able to look and note either side, yet never long before drawn back to the fascination and exhilaration of the bushes and higher scrub rushing to greet and clasp us, waving in excited farewell as they flashed beneath at 80 yards a second, in those primitive, pre-metric days - and to appreciate the skill with which this sensitive, potentially lethal machine was seemingly so effortlessly handled, and the whole flight performed.


For the pilot it was a very long day, which entailed over 600 miles of scrub brushing and navigation, with its attendant unremitting, intense concentration, alertness and nicety of judgements.


Yet throughout the journey it was a smiling always charming and delightful companion, at ease at the controls, who obviously enjoyed the novelty and challenging expertise demanded by the mission - and who was in sharp contrast with some pilots, whose unfolding churlishness and indifferent performance were in keeping, and could make the end of the flight, with its enforced proximity, quite the best part of a longest day, however short.


Could some of those early travellers, who journeyed the Tanami Desert the unmapped, unknowing, tough way, have seen her crossing, about the eye-level of the horsemen and below that of the camel riders, they would surely have given their spell-bound acclaim - not least from Anderson, Hitchcock and Whitlock.


Captain Davy was also a flying instructor and in 1970 carried out a course for three pastoralists in the Finke Corner of the NT, on one of their leases, before each bought his own plane at the conclusion of the course.


All were spontaneous in the enthusiastic, unqualified respect for the professional skill, instructive ability, and charm of this slim, attractive, clear-eyed young lady, who has contributed much to commercialisation throughout the Territory, and to the pleasure of those privileged to have been piloted by her.


You mention Geo Peko making a track Westwards in 1973. At Hooker Creek in 1965 I heard of a track from Tennant Creek towards Winnecke Creek. Its whereabouts and quality were not known, and some of the country near Winnecke Creek was still boggy from the big rain. Time did not permit my locating and traversing it, but I understood it was a mining company reconnaissance - probably Peko - this may be the one, reopened and improved in 1973, which you mention.


This has been written from my small daily diary, without reference or access to notes or maps to refresh the memory.


There would have been a report to accompany the initial access sketches and notes. Station summaries, embracing data and final access of the survey party become the main issue information. Nothing like a few departures and a move or two to get rid of the engulfing clutter - to the archives or to the embracing incinerator [too true!!].


Well, that piece of the Territory has surely been criss-crossed now - like so much of my Australia - a beautiful, fragile country - glad I saw it when I did, the way I did, and in the company I had much of the time. It was, even then, quite late, over much of it.


Signed HAJ