Geodetic Surveys through the Australian Sandridges
H. A. JOHNSON
(Division of National Mapping,
Department of National Development,
Commonwealth of Australia)
Geodetic Surveys through the Australian Sandridges
By H. A. JOHNSON
(Division of National Mapping, Department of National Development)
"Couched on the dewy plain and attended with the lights of thousands and thousands of bright stars all concentrated on me. Blessed genius, guardian of my life, thou awakes me to see the saffron morn, and inaugurates my early steps with the breeze of dawn."
The Need for a Geodetic Survey
When a house is built, foundations are laid down, and when a country is to be mapped, foundations must also be laid down, if all features, whether they are man-made towns, railways, roads and bridges, or natural features such as rivers, creeks, hills and ranges, are to be coordinated and in correct relationship in distance and direction with each other.
The larger the country the more important this becomes, and the greater need that every reasonable care and precaution are used to avoid the danger of a number of minor inaccuracies accumulating into a large and dangerous error.
A small swing commencing in one corner of Australia and carried 2,000 miles to an opposite corner can become a major discrepancy.
Accordingly, once in a country's lifetime, a main framework of mapping control is laid down, and every future mapping survey of any area and of any scale will commence and finish on points on this base.
This fundamental framework is called a geodetic survey, derived from the Greek words "ge", earth, and "daien", to divide.
Not only does it control and coordinate all mapping, but it supplies essential data for oil search, the exact size and shape of our planet which are so necessary for satellite and space projects, and not least, for the defence of a country. For many years artillery have been firing at targets they are unable to see - the knowledge of the exact location of targets thousands of miles away, and indeed on the opposite side of this globe, however, is now needed in this age of nervous preparedness.
Most people have noticed survey marks on prominent hills - small pimples surmounted by a small black ball or square, but which with some exertion and closer acquaintance become 6 to 12 feet high (and with similar diameter) symmetrically built piles of stones from which usually protrude wooden or steel poles, with attached 3 to 4 feet wide vanes.
These are the sighting marks, beacons, cairns or signals of the geodetic and mapping parties - "trigs" to any man of the land, and usually, not without some pride at the possession of such a symbol, though so often unknown to him, of the first surveyors in the area. Many of these sentinels have been found on their lonely duty, on far afield mountains and cliffs - magnificent craftsman-built monuments to the forgotten men who erected them over 100 years ago, and some still standing without a stone out of place.
They have all served or serve the same purpose - readily seen and recoverable points for past, present and future surveys whose positions are known and recorded with great accuracy.
Under good conditions they can be seen in the late afternoon 50 to 70 miles away with the powerful theodolites used for such work; and where visibility is poor, small but penetrating signalling lamps can be used. In the early days, fires were lighted and angles read to these fires at night.
Prior to 1957, great pains were taken to select such points, in an interlaced geometrical pattern of triangles of 15 to 50 mile sides, on the highest peaks or ranges or on isolated hills and wheat silos - any elevation to help obtain long lines of sight and hold accuracy on these surveys.
A short base of about 4 to 8 miles in length was measured with great accuracy with a special steel chain, and this side expanded in a series of triangles for some 200 to 300 miles, where another base was found if possible, on suitably even ground, as a check and for further extension of the survey. This was the trigonometrical survey, which has been the backbone survey of most countries.
Where few hills were available, recourse was sometimes made to the erection of special wooden or steel double towers - an external structure on which the surveyor stood and an internal tower, not touching the outer one in any way, on which the theodolite was mounted.
Such tower stands in Australia were anything from 30 to 70 feet high, but in America, to see over the tall trees, they have been erected 160 feet high.
To obtain a system of triangles using erected towers for geodetic and mapping control in flat and, especially, in timbered country was slow and costly, as can be readily appreciated, but such recourse was often used since difficult country could be measured and spanned by it much more accurately than by continuous ground chaining methods of traversing.
The Tellurometer Spans Australia
Then in 1957 a new instrument, invented in South Africa, and called a tellurometer, arrived in Australia.
Using micro-radio waves, it could measure lines up to 40 miles at least in length, several times in two hours and with an accuracy of about 6 to 8 inches or better. With a larger reflector of 4 feet diameter, lines of 114 miles long have been measured with ease.
The introduction of the tellurometer was revolutionary and dramatic and it immediately did away with the need for a geometrically selected pattern of triangles and allowed a traverse of simple lines to be taken accurately and economically along any route, preferably close to a track or road, by joining single intervisible stations in a continuous line of traverse.
It is still desirable and helpful, but not essential to have hills and ranges along the route of a proposed geodetic or mapping control survey. In flattish country small, easily erected, 10, 20 or 30 feet high windmill-type towers can be used to see above low trees and bushes, and these towers are left in position as conspicuous and economical marks for future use.
Here a point should be clarified. There is not much billiard table flatness in Australia, except on salt lakes, and even on old, dry salt lakes it is of limited extent. The famous Nullarbor Plain is comprised of slightly undulating terrain - the crests being anything from 5 to 20 miles apart and from 5 to 50 feet above the wide troughs.
The Sand ridge "Deserts " of Australia
Even in the seemingly endless sandridge country, where the ridges rise 20 to 100 feet above the flats between them, this same undulating trend occurs. From one high sandridge, it is sometimes possible to see across dozens, or a hundred sandridges at times, and particularly if salt lakes, marking some ancient river or inland sea arm, form an intervening depression - the colour changing from the nearer glowing ruby to the distant blueness, which the privileged traveller in these parts, once having seen, can never forget - the nostalgic yearning to return is the price Australia extracts from the myosotic vistas she displays to her favoured ones, who discern what they see in this limitless land of palpitating colour and space and peace.
What has happened is that the now high sandridge - covered undulations were once the original bases of ranges and hills, long - since ground down and reduced to form the very substance and destructive power of the serried rank on rank of sandridges, now moving sometimes feet in a few hours, in a wind-storm, but usually imperceptibly and far slower than the slowest glacier, though inevitably, over not only the lower intervening country, but even over the remnants of the high ground.
Figure 1 - Sandridges, dunes and deep basins in vicinity of Wanda Well No. 36. All signs of Stock Route, other than the wells, are now almost completely obliterated.
Through this vastness are many salt lakes - some being, huge areas of treacherous, impassable ooze, and others being readily negotiable firm crystal surfaces, or sanded-over and herbage growing tracts, over which are now creeping the encroaching sandridges, moving longitudinally in the direction of their length and of the prevailing winds usually East-South-East to West-North-West. Some of these ridges are 10 to 15 feet high, well established and held in position by spinifex and bushes - others are mere 6 inch high embryonic features but alive and growing across the lake bed.
Here and there are the stony, old sedimentary residuals, many being flat-topped, precipitously-walled mesas, often lonely, and always exciting, beckoning, and quickening the approach - with the chance of a rockhole of water, however small, or of a cave with native paintings and fully furnished with ash - heaps, grinding stones and stone-slivered knives, and ready for the next, now all but vanished, wanderer, who will never return - artefacts of an ancient race in a timeless, ancient land, and eloquent, accusing, sobering.
Some stony areas are extensive, comparatively high, gently rising on one side at least, and water-smoothed, but with sheer-cut watercourses and narrow, deep gullies draining them, with occasionally the rarest and indescribable marvel of a spring trickling from some fine, far penetrating fissure, and fed from a slowly seeping rain catch which fell on the higher surfaces, many months, maybe even a year or more, previously.
And there are tiny outcrops, just surfacing from the red waves relentlessly rolling them under, valiant but hope fading.
Sand is predominant over tremendous sections of Australia, and huge areas, with boundaries undelineated, are marked on the map "Great Sandy Desert", "Gibson Desert", "Great Victoria Desert", "Simpson Desert".
Possibly the majority of travellers, speeding along the bitumen highway from Melbourne to Adelaide, have forgotten, or are unaware, that a section between Tailem, Bend and Bordertown is, or was, well known as the "Ninety Mile Desert". Thirty-five years ago, with the performance of motors of those days and fitted with high-pressure, narrow tyres then available, it was an adventure to get through at all, and an achievement if without breaking an axle, crown or pinion wheel, or burning out the clutch. The wise came round Mount Gambier and the Coorong, 300 miles longer and usually many days shorter.
Enterprise, determination and trace elements changed this "desert", which is so distinctively different from those previously mentioned. Its sand is white - it receives a lot of rain and is water washed. From the burns and the humus, it takes on a greyish colour, but its main sandridges, exposed in the cuttings, are very white and like the coastal dunes.
Red, unbelievably red, is the mark of the central area sands, the brand of aridity, since every grain is coated with its veneer of red iron oxide.
In the big creeks of the Centre, though years often pass without their running, their wide beds are covered also with sand-white, water-washed sand. The tumbling and rubbing the sand is given when these creeks do come down (sometimes from a distant thunderstorm and downpour, and preceded by their rising murmur and froth and foam, and the excitement of the lucky beholder) is enough to remove its make-up, but leave it no less arrestive in its setting of red banks, lined with white-barked, massive and magnificent gum trees.
To many people, these "Deserts" on the Australian map conjure up visions of unbroken wastes of sand, remorselessly on the move and engulfing everything in their paths under white mantles. This is far from so. There is much sand and though many sandridges are "alive", most of them are quite firmly held in position by many-varied bushes and shrubs, chiefly species of Acacia and Grevillea, by profuse herbage after any good rain, and by various species of Triodia, universally known spinifex to everyone.
Whilst the continuous crests of many sandridges in the Great Sandy Desert area are lined with 30 to 60 feet high eucalypts, some 12 to 20 inches diameter in the bole, a lovely, striking sight and mute testimony of the lateral, positional stability of the ridge, yet these same crests frequently have 10 to 20 feet deep wind-scours and 30 to 40 feet high mounds of drift sand, with cornices and edges so steep and sharp that it seems impossible their angles of rest allow them to stand. These scours and drifts are usually in close proximity to the bigger trees, which obviously direct and funnel the wind.
In the flats between the sandridges, there are often fairly thick belts of mulga (if the ground tends to be firmer and loamier), or teatree (if limestone is near), but mostly various species of Acacia, Grevillea and Eremophila, standing 4 to 10 feet above the almost complete and ubiquitous spinifex.
Figure 2 - Division of National Mapping erects cairns wherever stone is available. Cairns are 8 ft. diameter, 6ft high, "pudding - shaped" for stability, with heavily galvanized 11ft pole, struts and vanes. Eccentric stations are used to avoid any future dismantling.
Spinifex presents, as a rule, a yellowy-brown, dried, resinous, needle-sharp leaved, round- shaped, symmetrical bush about 18 inches high and 18 to 36 inches across, but after good rains, the needle leaves turn green, and yellow stalks and ears of seed stand 4 to 6 feet high, waving and rippling in the wind like a golden, far reaching, rolling wheat field.
It has been much maligned by the early explorers, whose horses' legs frequently suffered in areas of coarse, rank spinifex, thickly coated with resin, which the natives used to collect to affix the barbs on their spears; but every year more and more cattle and sheep are living on straight spinifex pastures, and it is the main vegetation which holds back most of inland Australia from becoming a live, moving waste of sand, in reality.
After a year, or years, without proper rain, it turns almost black, but the first good rain springs new growth at once. It is very shallow and lightly rooted (except where it has been top - dressed by sandstorms to form solid reinforced, jarring sand - blocks of very rough going), and alight it burns as though covered in petrol, with great billowing smoke.
Figure 3 - The more difficult and remote an area, the more important to make permanent, readily
recoverable and quickly found marks. Recovery marks, as above, are laid off in adjacent, firm, sandy flats, 100 to 300 yards distant. A base, 200 yards long, is scraped flat for accurate chaining, with 5 ft. star picket at each end, and 20 ft. diameter central mark. 5 ft. by 1' in pipe with copper insert sunk to ground level, with cement top and bottom collars. Circular mound and two circular trenches. Two terminals and central RM all trigged to the main sandridge station with Wild T3.
Burning at the right time, just before rain, greatly improves and softens it as a subsequent pasture; and it also greatly eases the vehicular going through it, since the wind disperses the collected sand and seed bushes, which make such lumpy and slow travelling, with every bolt and working part at full creak and strain and jolt and, with sandridge crossings, an ultimate test on any four - wheeled vehicle.
In a good season, spinifex seeds prolifically. After it has ripened, the husks and downy fluff fly at a touch - many of the husks, however, being held on the stalks for several months after seeding. Any vehicle traversing spinifex flats sucks these husks, fluff and dust into the radiator, and the whole of the engine is also blanketed with a half inch thick insulating layer of it, with serious effects on the cooling system. Fine, very carefully fitted, double screens (one being of fibre glass) have proved effective, but even so, under the worst conditions, frequent stops are necessary to brush the engine down, and to blow backwards through the radiator's honeycomb with a pump, or better still compressed air, which is effectively supplied, if required, from the spare tyre and a length of rubber tubing.
Hessian, or a bag, on a frame standing well in front of the radiator will scatter and break the worst of the husks, and although all these screens cut down the flow of air through the radiator they are necessary, since otherwise a layer an inch thick will cover the radiator in a few minutes of really bad going, and, even if brushed off, the core will still be completely choked with it.
Far afield, one sight of blue smoke, coiling from under the bonnet, is usually sufficient to ensure the engine and especially the manifold are kept thoroughly brushed down and often. Stalks from spinifex break off and pack under the chassis and round the petrol tanks, muffler and exhaust pipe, in an unbelievable way. It is a constant threat, as is also to stop on top of a spinifex bush, which are so thick it is often difficult to avoid, with the always heated exhaust pipe ready to ignite in a flash this resin-saturated tinder.
Frequent removal of this highly inflammable straw, and continuous vigilance are essential, because, if the vehicle goes up with its load of petrol, everything goes too - food, water, wireless. It pays to carry a two gallon tin of water on the front bumper bar, or in the handiest possible place for removal, and, also two or three smaller extinguishers are preferable to one large 2 gallon type, which, once started, empties itself. An easily removable shovel and axe can assist in an emergency. After years without trouble, two fires on one vehicle were experienced within a thousand miles of each other, on one trip recently.
Trees of any kind are almost always a welcoming and pleasurable sight to the traveller in Central Australia, but few views compare with the Desert Oak, whether in a scattered stand, an extensive and wide belt, or as a single sentinel - so completely dwarfing, as they usually do, all other trees and shrubs in their far-sweeping habitat.
There are a number of species of Casuarina in Australia, frequently associated with water, but the Desert Oak is spectacular, standing up to 60 feet high, with spreading shade and clean carpet of needles beneath it and always a breeze sighing through its graceful, drooping, foliage, whose likeness to the plumage of the cassowary has given it its generic name.
Penetrating the Sandridges by Motor Vehicle
This then describes very generally some of this not very well known country scientists and geologists wished to examine in better detail.
People flew over it, often not very happily (remembering what happened to Anderson and Hitchcock), and it was photographed, but for most examinations it is still necessary to walk about on the ground, and nothing helped so much towards this as the advent of the fourwheeled - drive vehicle.
The early jeeps, so essential in the 1939 - 45 war, contributed greatly, but they were uncomfortable and small, and a far cry from such modern, medium sized vehicles as the Landrover, Willys and International. These vehicles, invariably grossly overloaded, have played the major part recently in opening up so much of these vast areas, going in first, with subsequently graders or bulldozers following their routes, and properly driven they have turned on incredible performances.
When equipment and such vehicles slowly became available in the late "40's", surveyors and geologists armed with aerial photographs, wireless and four - wheeled - drive vehicles, began to break up, systematically and scientifically, the previously less accessible, sandier areas of this continent.
Let there be no misunderstanding about the respective difficulties and conditions of these latter day visitors and modern surveying, compared with the hardships and dangers of the early explorers and surveyors, who pushed out and into the unknown determinedly, and often tragically, by horse and camel, with no maps or knowledge whatsoever of what lay ahead of them for many hundreds of miles, no photographs, no wireless, no air drops, no modern medicines - and the now disappearing, lonely graves have testified that dysentery, scurvy, food - and blood-poisoning were far greater killers than hostile natives, who very understandably resented the intruders on their tribal hunting grounds, and whose thirst-quenchless, giant beasts of burden so often sucked their scanty waterholes dry.
Let there be no basking either (as some modern intrepid "explorers" would appear to attempt, with their fresh food, tinned luxuries, large mobile refrigerators, with winged help coming at a call, or the lack of a call, ample water for showers, modern machinery clearing and smoothing a track before them) in the achievements so hard won, and honour so often belatedly or posthumously given, of these first explorers, who were almost invariably accompanied, willingly or unwillingly, by aboriginal helpmates and guides, and without whose peerless bushmanship and tracking lore, in their country they were losing, many of these first expeditions would have failed, or perhaps even vanished as completely and utterly as Gibson, or the whole of Leichhardt's last venture.
The Main Geodetic Scheme
With the arrival of the distance measuring tellurometer in 1957, coupled with the increasing performance and range of four - wheeled - drive vehicles, great survey activity commenced in Australia, with particular urgency to complete this main geodetic framework, so that any future detailed map would hang exactly in its right place and with correct co - ordinates.
There are a number of survey authorities who have carried out coordinated work on this overall geodetic project, namely the Division of National Mapping in the Department of National Development, the Royal Australian Survey Corps in the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior, and the Lands and Survey Departments of all the Australian States.
Traverses began to spread out rapidly in a planned grid, and now, after six busy years, this framework should be completed in another two or three years.
Where previously a triangulation party of eight men would be extended to carry control 500 to 600 miles in fairly good triangulation country in a year, the same party could now traverse 1,200 miles, not only doubling the distance, but carrying the work through low-featured areas, which would have been prohibitively costly under the old methods of high towers and geometrical figures.
The Division of National Mapping parties have been privileged to carry geodetic control over many very interesting sections in this great scheme, and some of these will be mentioned.
Commencing at Broken Hill in 1954, they took triangulation to Port Augusta, thence through the abrupt and colourful Flinders Ranges to Marree, and following near the railway through the low and eroded country draining into Lake Eyre, and on to Alice Springs and Darwin.
At the Devil's Marbles, South of Tennant Creek, and just as the hills faded out, the first tellurometer arrived in 1957 and allowed traverse to continue to Darwin, and made geodetic work speedier, more flexible and more accurate.
It must be mentioned that much of South Australia was covered by a State trigonometrical survey from 70 to 100 years old, painstakingly marked with solid, massive stone cairns, or, on sandridges, with 12 feet high pyramids of mulga logs laid horizontally, and some so sound they are still usable. Selected stations in this old scheme were reoccupied, only because the instruments of those early days did not have the accuracy of modern equipment - the original reconnaissance and marking being a permanent monument to the professional pride and skill of these early surveyors, and a criterion for all such future work.
In 1957 and 1958, a party traversed from Aileron (about 80 miles North of Alice Springs) generally North-Westerly through the old Granites and the deserted Tanami goldfields, reopening the guttered, overgrown and sand-filled tracks of these possibly remotest of all fields in Australia, and on to Halls Creek and to Derby.
There was now a huge area awaiting accurate survey between Alice Springs, Marble Bar, Wiluna, and Finke, on the North-South railway, and two geodetic surveys through it were chiefly responsible for the making of two new East-West routes across this part of Australia, and the complete opening up of this vast "desert" country.
In the first of these surveys, the route kept Westerly and closely to the 26° parallel of latitude, along the South Australian - Northern Territory border, through the magnificent Musgrave Ranges (where Mt. Woodroffe, the highest point in South Australia rises 4,970 feet) and embracing the "three tors" of Mt. Connor, Ayers Rock and Mt. Olga, thence through the Mann, Tomkinson, Rawlinson and Blackstone Ranges to Warburton Mission, and all well known and travelled by the staff and aboriginal members of the Ernabella and Warburton Missions, and by Patrol Officers of the Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australian Aboriginal Departments (which strictly control entry into the great Aboriginal Reserves in this area), and by the staff of the Giles Weather Station in the Rawlinson Ranges.
Westwards from Warburton Mission for 200 miles to Carnegie Homestead, near Lake Carnegie, aerial photographs had not been flown in 1958, and John Forrest's notes and sketches made on his historic journey in 1873 were carefully studied when this geodetic survey reconnaissance was carried out by National Mapping in 1958.
It was known that Forrest's party traversed a good deal of sand, but by swinging about 75 miles North of his mid-route, a track was selected which kept at least on firm flattish sand, with wide gentle undulations, and with occasional low, but very helpful, stony residual ridges and tops - and all without the need to cross a sandridge.
The going was easy and generally fairly open, and by travelling from rise to rise and by standing on the roof of the Landrover, the best route was readily picked through the occasional belts of mulga.
Subsequently Department of Supply graded a track along this route prior to the main marking and measuring of the survey in 1959.
At Carnegie Homestead, the traverse swung North-West, using the beautiful, 3,000 feet high Carnarvon Ranges, thence through Mundiwindi on the Great Northern Highway, and the expressively named Ophthalmia Range, to Roy Hill, where it jointed the Western Australian Survey Department work.
In 1960, another connection was run from the Rawlinson Ranges, near Giles, to Lake Mackay to join the Aileron to Granites survey near Mt. Doreen Homestead. On this work one of the party, using the explorer Tietkins journal, searched for and found the tree Tietkins had blazed in 1889 at the foot of Mt. Leisler, which this explorer had climbed and had seen, disappearing to the West, an endless sea of sand, and an impassable barrier to him in 1889.
From Mt. Leisler, on the Northern Territory-Western Australian border and South of Lake Mackay, one of the huge inland salt lakes, the geodetic traverse was then extended generally westwards in 1961 on its way towards Marble Bar, and by October, 1961, after sinking a water point, Jupiter Well, in a setting of Desert Oaks, the control had been taken to Minjoo Well, No. 35, on the Canning Stock Route - a point, by the tracks which now reach it, some 600 miles from Alice Springs, 550 miles from Marble Bar, and 400 miles from Halls Creek, and one of the remote parts of this continent, visitable previously only by horse and camel along the line of wells between Wiluna and Billiluna, which form the Canning Stock Route.
The Canning Stock Route
This stock route is more than worthy of some mention. It was surveyed and established in 1907 and 1908 by a party led by the man, after whom it is named - A.W. Canning, one of the greatest of Australian surveyors.
Commencing from Wiluna, the direction was taken generally North-East to Billiluna and Halls Creek, to be the route to bring down cattle from the Kimberlies and the Northern Territory to the Perth Markets.
Sandridges run in all directions at times, forming irregular, broken dunes (through which it is often not so difficult to weave a track), but in this area, their prevailing direction is E.S.E. to W.N.W., with the ridges running for continuous miles, and therefore this North-East route was not going to run with them, but was going to buck them almost square on for 800 miles.
With riding horses, and camels, packed or pulling wagons of supplies, including the massive steel lids, troughing, windlasses, 8 gallon buckets and pulley wheels for the derricks on which these buckets were to be raised by horse or camel, this party set out to find and establish waters at no more than 20 mile intervals. It was a tremendous undertaking, and would be even today, with every modern mechanical aid.
The stock route traversed what is now known as the Canning Basin, and waters of varying quality, quantity and at varying depths were established, mostly as wells 6 ft. by 3 ft. and 2 to 60 feet deep, but generally from 12 to 20 feet deep with fair to good quality water.
These wells were craftsman-built, with the first 10 feet or so timbered through the light sandy soil, until the firmer limestone or sandstone was met and in which a reservoir of water about 6 feet deep was formed. A few of the wells were too salty even for cattle, and others made water very slowly, giving problems to the drovers in moving their mobs over these indifferent watering points to the next ample supply. They were fenced in, with the 40 feet or more of troughing in cradles, and the massive derricks, windlasses and supporting posts cut if possible from desert oaks, which were sometimes carted many miles for this purpose, because of the wood's durability.
In 1930 and 1931 a maintenance and renovating trip was made and again led by Canning, and only now are these wells showing fairly appreciable effects of nearly 60 years of service. It is of interest, these days particularly, to read Canning's report on this second trip, and, after herculean work in cleaning out and re - establishing most of these 51 wells and waters and arriving at Billiluna out of supplies (and this station unable to supply him) see his justifying some veiled or unveiled censure as to why he went to Halls Creek for two days, about the 28th December, 1930, to buy supplies, before immediately turning back on his tracks to complete the remaining wells his party was unable to repair on the forward journey through food shortage! This party left Perth 27th March, 1930 - it returned to Perth 11th August, 1931.
Figure 4 - Minoo Well No. 35, 7 ft. deep and plentiful, good water, in wide teatree flat. Derrick used with horse to raise 8 gallon bucket. Erected in 1907, galvanized troughing and desert oakposts and rails are now decaying.
The service these wells provided was the means to water, in most instances, one mob of about 400 head of cattle bought down through Billiluna each year in the May to August months - Billiluna later being the only station permitted to send its cattle down because of the danger of introducing pleuro - pneumonia into the Southern districts.
Even if unfamiliar with this country, one can perhaps realize the fantastic spectacle of such a mob threading its way over the endless sandridges, milling round each water, guided by the handful of stockmen, mounted on camels and horses, with the heavy responsibility of getting the cattle through safely, and well aware they could enter some 200 miles drought - stricken, feedless stretch, which had missed all that Summer's rain. And one may also imagine, with little effort, Canning and his party in 1907, forming this route and making it possible. Small wonder, when they returned to Perth at the successful conclusion of their gigantic task, and Canning made his report, the members of both Houses rose to give him a standing ovation.
What provocation, if any, the aboriginals in this area were given, is not known, but they caused trouble on various occasions, in addition to damaging the wells by burning and filling them with debris.
One of Canning's assistants, Michael Tobin, was fatally speared on 5th April, 1907, at Wallawalla, Well No. 40, on the Northern Arm of Lake Tobin, now named after him - the native also dying from Tobin's rifle bullet just as he was speared. Tobin is buried, where in the circumstances he would have doubtless wished, where he died - the headstone having been carried from Perth, and with its back and sides encased in galvanized iron to prevent the natives from chipping the marble for spearheads and knives. It is a solitary, peaceful, grave, unmolested in its beautiful and limitless spaciousness.
In 1909, on the first attempt to drove cattle over the Canning Stock Route, the whole party of stockmen, Messrs. Thompson, Shoesmith, and one coloured and two aboriginal drovers were attacked and all wiped out at Libral Well, No. 37, in the heart of high sand hills, halfway down the route and about 500 riding miles from the nearest outpost station. Tom Cole of Wyndham on the next trip down found the bodies and buried them, finding also their diary with reference to their suffering from sandy blight (conjunctivitis), and a reference to their having some natives helping to pull water for the cattle, which may possibly have sparked off the massacre.
Then in 1922, J. V. McLernon of the Locke Oil Expedition was killed with a nulla - nulla (heavy stick), as he was sleeping, about 30 miles East of this same Libral Well.
On the 7th March, 1940, George Lanigan of Billiluna marked the graves at this well, and on this same 1940 trip, Mrs. George Lanigan, the only woman to have travelled the Canning Stock Route, accompanied her husband. George Lanigan with horse and camel made four complete trips from Billiluna to Wiluna with cattle, and one from Well No. 22, near Lake Disappointment to Wiluna. He is the authority on this historic track, and likely to remain so, because the last cattle from Billiluna travelled it in 1959, and in 1962 a new stock route (now known as a "Beef Road") was reconnoitred, and the first mob taken over it in March, 1962, from Billiluna, South - East through Balgo Mission, passing near The Granites, and through Mt. Doreen to Alice Springs.
During his trips down the Canning, George Lanigan met various groups of aboriginals, of 5 to 30 in a group, pleased to accept the meat he gave them. There are very few indeed now to be met, almost all such previous wanderers being at the Balgo Mission near Billiluna.
This is a brief description of the Canning Stock Route which has combined some of the best surveying, bushmanship and droving in Australia's history, and on which Minjoo Well, No. 35, of unlimited and excellent water, about 10 feet deep, in a long, wide teatree flat, with a background of desert oaks, was a strategic point for the geodetic traverse linking Alice Springs and Marble Bar.
Although it is not difficult, in this great area, to negotiate a route in a general East or West direction, and thereby running with the sandridges, it is easier to travel from West to East than from East to West. Sandridges very often run for many continuous miles, and frequently forking and branching into other spurs and ridges. The tines of these forks point to the East, and by travelling East one runs with them, and does not run into a gully, which commences at the junction of two sandridges, one of which then has to be climbed to get out of this gully.
Accordingly, it was easier to take the traverse from near Marble Bar generally Eastwards to Well No. 35, and this was commenced in July, 1962, near Callawa Homestead, joining the end of the 1961 traverse at Well No. 35, in October, as the heat and shimmer, and boiling vehicles, began to make accurate work difficult.
Water is a precious and generally scarce commodity over most of this driest of continents. With almost every day over 100° F. from early August, it became even more so on this 450 mile stretch between Callawa and Well No. 35. A well was put down about 200 miles from Callawa, and a small supply obtained at 12 feet, and our insurance in an emergency. It is asking a lot of the most efficient truck to grind it, grossly overloaded, at 2 to 4 miles per hour, over rough spinifex and heavy sand, with the temperature well over 100° F., and it seems, no matter what direction one travels, with always a tail wind, or, at best, no wind; and it speaks volumes for modern four-wheel-drive vehicles that they performed this, and so many other surveys in extreme conditions, with no troubles other than a few broken rear axles or front springs.
The Four - Wheel - Drive Vehicles
Some description of the vehicles, which have made work possible over most of Australia, is warranted. All four - wheel - drive vehicles used have performed well - Landrovers, Willys, International 1 ton, and Bedford and Commer 3 ton trucks, the latter as supply trucks.
To look at them, they are conventional trucks and give comfortable riding - they are not tracked vehicles, since they must be ready to traverse highways at reasonable speed as well as to cross-country. Heavy bumper bars, radiator screens and bough rods, to break and deflect stakes and boughs, are added.
An International 1 ton truck was fitted with battened down tanks to hold 180 gallons of fuel for long range reconnaissance in sandridge country. At 45 m.p.h. it did 12 m.p.g. on good roads. In normal, flattish sandy cross country going it gave about 6 - 7 m.p.g. and in the heaviest sandridge areas, 5 m.p.g. With this fuel supply, it therefore had a range of 800 to 900 miles in the worst of any going likely to be encountered.
These trucks are fitted with 50 gallon water tanks, and carry very complete spares and equipment. They are fitted with over-size tyres 8.25 x 16 by 10 ply plain roadtread tyres, with no queer bars or fancy treads, which act as bucket scoops in the sand, as well as guiding in stakes, which otherwise would glance off smoother tyres. When sand is encountered, these tyre pressures are dropped to 13-15 lbs. in the rear and 11-13 lbs. in the front - all cold pressures in the morning. With such pressures travel must be slow, as will be in sand, and tyres must be re - inflated if hard stony going is met. Valves must be watched in bad sandridges for turning and tearing out of the tubes, a reasonably slow process which, when seen that the valves are angling, can be rectified by changing the rear wheels from left to right. Ignorance of the need to lower tyres in sandy crossings, has cost a number of lives in the outback in dry sandy creeks. A mixture of hair and liquid rubber called Safety Seal, inserted in our tubes, has been most effective in greatly lessening the number of punctures in cross-countrying. Slow and careful driving, with under-inflated plain treaded tyres, is the best means of reducing punctures in bad stake areas - the tyres then folding over a potential puncture, which, with speed and high pressure, would go through like a bayonet. Sliding, impact hammers and good levers have been found desirable to remove these heavy tyres from their rims.
Some idea of such modern vehicles may be judged by the performance of the previously mentioned one ton reconnaissance vehicle. In a trip of over 8,000 miles from Melbourne to Marble Bar to Well No. 35, thence North-East along the Canning Stock Route to Billiluna, to Christmas Creek and Halls Creek, to Balgo Mission, The Granites, Alice Springs, Kingoonya, Ceduna, 150 miles North of Cook on the Nullarbor Plain and back to Melbourne, the main troubles were, four punctures and two broken front springs, one 400 miles and the other 150 miles from Alice Springs after negotiating more than 1,000 Sandridges, and extremely rough sand - filled spinifex bushes, even in the flats in most places. The first broken spring was wired to a crowbar, and the second to a mulga branch to reach Alice Springs, where the axles were removed and examined, were apparently perfect and were replaced.
This truck has a very powerful and efficient motor, with four forward gears and high and low ratio in its four-wheel-drive. Most sandridges were crossed in 2nd gear, low ratio - the easier ones in 2nd gear, high ratio. This 2nd gear is a very smooth, flexible gear, with a big ratio difference between 2nd and 3rd gears. On occasions, it was possible, in not very rough flats, to roll along easily, breaking a new track in flattish sand, in 2nd gear, 2-wheel drive - 2-wheel drive gives a less rigid ride wherever it can be used, but engine revolutions must be kept up in heavy going - or any going for that matter. Nothing is worse for an engine than to be slugging in slow labour.
1st gear, low ratio was never used in heavy sand, or for crossing a sandridge. It is very comforting to have, however, when slow crawl or great power on firm going is needed.
Negotiating the Canning Stock Route by Truck
On arrival at Minjoo Well, No. 35, in September, 1962, a solid test awaited this reconnaissance vehicle, namely, to reconnoitre a geodetic traverse North-Easterly to Billiluna and Halls Creek in the general vicinity of the Canning Stock Route, thereby making use of its waters, and, of course, striking square across a sea of more than a thousand sandridges.
These sandridges varied from 60 yards apart to a mile on occasions, but averaged about 300 to 400 yards. Some were magnificent features, 100 feet above the intervening flats and sometimes 100 yards across the smoothly rolling tops. These were often firm, with somewhat bigger sand grains, and, frequently easier to cross than the lower, wind-scoured and sand-filled spinifex bush-covered barriers with their loose, steep walls of the finest drift sand.
Figure 5 - North of Guli Tank No. 42. Sandridges are 100 yards apart at times.
In June, 1959, after talks with George Lanigan, a National Mapping reconnaissance by Landrover had been made from Wiluna along the Stock Route to Well No. 14, to establish that, if needed, it was possible to take a geodetic traverse over the Route by motor vehicles, without the use of camels or pack-horses.
However, in September, 1962, due to the lateness of the year with its continuous and rising heat, and the drought conditions, both of which loosen the sand, it was thought it might not be possible to complete to Halls Creek, and perhaps only reach Lake Tobin. To the reconnaissance surveyor there is a tremendous urge to see what is beyond the rim of the horizon, and how he will plan his most economical survey, and this reconnaissance, once started, was accordingly completed, due to the extraordinary performance of such modern vehicles, as have been mentioned.
Speed, abuse of vehicles and rough handling are the main causes of breakages and breakdowns. In sandridges or rocky going, vehicles must be nursed, and every sandridge should be inspected on foot before it is attempted. Even if the approaching side seems smooth, the top is often badly wind-scoured, or has rough, solid, sand-filled bushes, or the far side is so steep it is impossible to return in one's tracks, should it be necessary.
If distant, the ridge can be examined firstly by field glasses for obvious, low crossings, but if this gives no indication, it usually pays to head for the highest top, which will often be at a fork, or at one end of a saucer - a quite deep depression or trough in the sandridge, below the rim of which the truck may be able to sidle. The vehicle should stop about 100 yards from the ridge, and the best approach then selected on foot, which will save much turning and petrol. At the foot, a look both ways will show the best grade over the ridge - this grade changes frequently along a ridge, and it is of importance to realize that the slopes of most ridges, when coupled with scours and rough bushes, are usually just beyond the critical limit of a wheeled truck to negotiate them.
Any drifts, even with only a foot high face, are usually soft and hopeless. If no good crossing is obvious, a walk along the ridge is indicated, for a lower, or smoother approach, or maybe a wide, deep windscour right through, or for a sloping terrace, easily passed if one does not occasionally look behind.
A shovel carried to remove a sand-filled bush may well make a crossing possible and save half a mile, or a broken spring or axle - it can also be dragged, to mark the exact route of the wheels, which is of vital importance to miss obstacles not easily seen on these steep and rolling slopes from the cabin, over the steeply inclined bonnet.
Physical energy and patience are essential in heavy sandridge crossings, if transmission and spring breakages are to be avoided, or if the ridges are even to be crossed at all - and on the initial search for crossings, one can walk quicker than in turning and climbing in and out of a vehicle.
No useful rain had fallen along the route between Wells No. 35 and No. 48 in 1962, and drought conditions prevailed, giving the vehicle a supreme test - it was, therefore, interesting to see how the difficulties of crossing the ridges altered in different sections.
After leaving Wanda Well, No. 36, the traverse, making for the next proposed survey station, headed North-East for two miles through a beautiful belt of desert oaks, then struck, still North-East, through a labyrinth of confused sand dunes and deep depressions, of most peculiar, basin-like effect, where the best way through was to ride round on the crests of these narrow separating rims between the basins.
From Murguga Well, No. 39, North to Lake Tobin, there were five or six, low, very soft sandridges with drift walls, which were awkward, and there was a section between Wells 40 and 41, which seemed the most difficult encountered - not very high sandridges, but close, wind - scoured and badly drifted. Canning, in his report of 1930-31, mentioned he considered this the worst section on the whole route - his camels were dragging their heavily laden wagon, and also under drought conditions.
Between Tiru Well, No. 41, and Guli Tank, No. 42, probably the highest and biggest sandridges of all were crossed - magnificent features.
It was startling at times to look down from some of these crests and see just what steep slopes the vehicle had climbed - but these slopes were smoother and not so cluttered with sand-filled spinifex bushes and scours, allowing more speedy approaches, and also, as stated previously, the grains of sand seemed bigger and firmer.
From Guli Tank, No. 42, the sandridges, though no less frequent and all first inspected on foot for best and two way crossings, became lower, with more crossable places, and the success of the traverse more assured.
Fifteen miles South-West of Well No. 45, and near the Gravity Lakes claypans, the welcome sight was had of a distant blue peak - the first outlier of the Southesk Tablelands. Surprisingly, and unpleasantly, after reaching this haven, some of the very roughest of high, hard, sand-filled spinifex bushes were bumped over all the way to Crown Head in the Catspaw Hills, near Well No. 48, and more particularly in the rough flats between the low and innumerable ridges than on the crests of them.
Figure 6 - South of Well No. 45. Sandridges here are about 300 yards apart, and this one, on high ground, looks over many of them to the far horizon.
Salt lakes can be a serious hazard to the unwary - and the wary. Some, such as Lakes Percival and Tobin were found in the main to be sandy soil-covered, dry marshes, growing samphire and herbage - the soil covering being about 12 inches deep over mixed sand and gypsum crystals. This was under drought conditions, but even so there were some very deep, hopeless bogs in places.
Whitish or mottled surfaces are usually a danger sign that the area is damp and slippery, at the least.
The immediate 10 or 20 yards of any sandy edge of a lake is specially treacherous, particularly if the lake is damp on or near the surface and, even if hard crystals are 6 or 9 inches below this damp top. Seepage from higher ground or flats often turns this sand, which may be dry on top for 6 to 12 inches, into a bottomless quicksand. This also applies to many dry looking creek beds, which are fed by salty springs, especially after big rains which have made these creeks run - the top 12 inches of sand being quite dry, with the subsurface wet, oozy and quivering.
The hardest, smoothest and safest surface is usually on the lake proper, 10 to 30 feet from the edge of the sand.
Any short-cuts across an arm of the lake running inshore, however narrow, are likely to be regretted. The only reliable way is to dig holes with a shovel to establish, beyond doubt, hard bottom and that it is not far down. Sometimes there is only an inch of dampish mud, which a vehicle at some speed negotiates easily, but as the vehicle gets out from the shore this mud may deepen, until the truck loses its speed and cannot be turned back before it is seriously bogged, up to the axles, and deeper, far from the shore with no wood or bushes to pack and lift the wheels, turning freely in this ooze, even over gypsum crystals. It is easy to drive over dry looking mud or soil and break through into bottomless slime.
Where a vehicle is bogged in ooze over hard bottom, the tracks should be opened to dry out, especially over night, and at daylight next morning, with tyres about 11 lbs. pressure (they should be down, in any case, for lake work, just as for sandy going) it will have its best chance of getting out before the Sun's capillary action softens the mud.
If a lake surface of dampish, slippery mud over hard crystals or bottom must be crossed, then early morning, and the cooler it is, is best for the attempt. For this matter, sandridges also are always easier in early morning, and in Winter, and, of course, very easy after rain or a good season.
Unless a lake is tested and thoroughly known, it is very unwise to go far out. Getting bogged even 100 yards from bushes is hard and slow work - a mile out could take many days to extract a vehicle. There is no substitute for walking ahead with a shovel, to test by actual and frequent digging the exact route, wherever there is the faintest doubt; or where the surface changes colour or appearance; or, particularly, where bushes or herbage finish.
Track Making in Arid Areas
Instead of grinding and bouncing over rough sand-filled and ant-nested spinifex at 3 or 4 m.p.h. in sandridge areas, it is possible to travel quickly and smoothly at 20 or 25 m.p.h., if a simple track is put down, and nowhere else than in open sandy country can it be put down as cheaply, easily, and quickly.
However, it seems impossible to get across to most track makers, who rarely return to see the results of their ignorance and damage, how tracks should be made in these remote and light sandy soils, when such tracks will have infrequent use and probably little or no maintenance.
Unless there are solid stony outcrops or dense and heavy scrub, bulldozers are unnecessary and can be destroyers of a new track.
There seems to be an irresistible compulsion on the part of most bulldozer drivers to turn on the great power available to them, at the touch of a finger, in pushing out trees (which might often be readily avoided by a slight deviation) and thus leaving great, soft, smoothed-over patches, which immediately subside with the first vehicle and especially with the first heavy rain, or in ripping down 12-18 inches into the light soil, which had taken centuries to obtain equilibrium to its present state, then pushing back and smoothing this loosened, uncompacted soil into weeks of heavy, deadly going, until the chancy combination of just the right amount of rain and traffic consolidates it.
This smoothed-over soft sand is full of broken stakes, puncture producing, and there is usually a foot high bank of spoil (soil, branches and bushes) left on each side of the track, with a channel cut on each side - but inside the banks, and supposedly to run off the water.
Several things should be appreciated about track making in remote, arid, light soil areas. Firstly, rain is infrequent, but almost invariably, when it does rain, it deluges down, probably after a drought, and inches in an hour, with no herbage to steady its rush on any slope. This water is channelled in deeply cut tracks, tearing ruts and washouts feet deep, and the track becomes simply a new watercourse. Secondly, on infrequently used deep tracks in flat sandy areas, where every wind puts sand on the move, these tracks fill up with the very finest sand. With no traffic to consolidate its looseness, it is soon much easier on the vehicle to get out of this deep, loose, very fine sand, and travel outside the track.
The whole success of making useful and lasting, but infrequently used tracks in these areas depends on the following:
(a) Cut and scrape the surface as little as possible to level it reasonably, smashing and spreading the sand-filled and small ant-nested bushes which so roughen the travelling;
(b) Avoid channeling deep long straights on the slightest slope, where the water can gather speed, volume and destructive power - a few slight bends will help on long slopes, and it is worth remembering that doubling the speed of water lets it move sand and gravel not twice, but sixty four times the previous size;
(c) Avoid forming high spoil banks, and on any side slope especially avoid throwing up any bank on the high side, since, on the high side, water will bank up against this wall, break through every few yards to cut deep channels across the track in the very first rain, and with every subsequent fall;
(d) If easy turns can be made, deep cuts will be avoided on the corners.
If these points are followed in such track-making, then stormwaters can flow over them with least interruption and channelling.
A grader is a costly piece of machinery, and often a simple "H" iron scraper, dragged behind a heavy truck or tractor, will form 20 miles or more a day of fast track, most economically and effectively in spinifex country.
Magnificent beef roads are going down in pastoral areas, often as high, built-up sand tracks, with channels each side and a good camber to shed the water. These beef roads, however, are well- used, well-maintained and over 100 feet wide, running the water off them the shortest distance, and which cannot saturate back to the centre to form a quagmire and cut up, as happens with the normal narrow track, 20 feet wide or less, whose side gutters and walls on any flattish, loamier soil hold the water to retain a morass long after the untouched, adjacent ground is dry, or, on any slope, become channels of destruction.
Only by "running-out" sandridges and by many deviations, can a useful track, capable of taking heavy 3 or 5 ton trucks through an area of numerous sandridges, be made. Where areas of heavy sandridges have to be crossed, unless there is considerable daily traffic, deep cutting by bulldozer to reduce the grade will give no lasting benefit for 3 ton or heavier trucks. In one day, a big wind can put several feet of fine, loose sand in the cutting, making it impassable for heavy trucks and difficult even for 1 ton vehicles. These 1 ton, four-wheeled-drive vehicles, though, will readily cross a quite steep sandridge, if a smooth, straight run can be cleared at it, and, once again, the least cutting will keep its useful surface longest, and any run, unless there is a definite terrace, should be square to the ridge.
In the 800 miles traversed from Callawa to Minjoo Well, No. 35, and on to Billiluna, during mid-July to late October, 1962, no aboriginals were seen.
Near Percival Lakes, one afternoon, spinifex smoke rose suddenly about 3 miles away, but no natives were sighted as the truck approached the area. At Wanda Well, No. 36, there was a big mound of desert oak cones recently brought there, and from which the seeds had been extracted to be ground between their grinding stones; and recent footprints of two natives were seen in the soft damp mud on one part of Lake Tobin. Some fair sized spinifex burns had been fired in the pleasant, big sandridge country between Tiru Well and Guli Tank, Nos. 41 and 42, maybe months before - it is difficult to tell. These were the only fairly recent signs of aboriginals noticed on the entire trip.
Trees from which Coolamons (carrying dishes) had been cut were very frequent indeed, though most of them being many years old. Several small caves with simple paintings were found, but time did not permit examination of every likely cavity, or visiting the few rocky formations some distance from the traverse route, such as the extensive residual area South of Wardabunni Rockhole, Water No. 38, which latter was completely dry in September and obviously had been for a long time, although it has a wide drainage catchment and is a very deep hole.
Grinding stones and stone chip knives were on many of the higher sandridges, and several broken spears were seen. The memory of these stone articles on the clean, red sand, still lying where they were first left years ago, is recalled very sharply.
They were probably returned to on occasions or used by others, because the aboriginal long ago learnt to burden himself as little as possible, and conserve himself and his energies and alertness for survival.
But they have had their last practical use, and only in his dream - time will he return to them now, and watch from his sandridge lookout with his deep - set shielded eyes.
Many lovely trees, eucalypts and desert oaks, grow all through the area traversed, the oaks being found in extensive stands as far North as Billiluna; but of arresting interest are the number and size of the eucalypts which grow on the sides and crests of most of the sandridges, commencing from a point about 200 track miles East of Callawa to Minjoo Well and on to Well No. 45, the flats between the ridges being comparatively bare of such large trees.
It is astonishing, but it appears these big trees get all their water by precipitation from the infrequent rains which fall on and penetrate the sandridges, the loose sand, however, retaining the moisture which could be lost by capillary action in firm loam or clayey soils. This seems borne out near Well No. 45, where the sandridges become lower, and devoid of big trees, which then grow in the flats, their roots presumably reaching water, judging by the teatree and limestone indications. On one wind-scoured ridge between Tiru Well and Guli Tank, roots, an inch thick, were seen 50 yards from their parent tree.
There is little daylight movement in the hot weather in Central Australia at any time, but a number of well below-average-rainfall to drought-condition years prior to 1963, seems to have affected the fauna appreciably, and probably more so in the sandridge country, with its practically complete lack of open waters, than elsewhere.
These same poor seasons at least temporarily reduced the greatest misery over most of Australia - flies. In a good season, with the spinifex in flower, their daylight torments are almost unendurable and never ending - on warm nights, even commencing again with moonrise. During a dry year, some will always hatch with the return of warm weather in September, but with lack of moisture and flowers, most of them die off. They doubtless do the pollinating and are necessary, but some non-greasy, simple preparation, which will effectively deter their attention and inquisitiveness in man and stock, is long overdue, and surely not beneath and beyond the scientific interest and capabilities of our research chemists.
Dingo tracks were often seen on the sandridges near camps in the morning, but never sight or sound of the dogs themselves. No kangaroo or wallaby tracks were seen near the Stock Route between Wells 35 and 51, but presumably these dingoes obtain sufficient lizards and nocturnal rodents for food.
Figure 7 - Sand - filled bushes, scours and drifts on crests and especially on sides, usually at critical slope (or steeper) to negotiate, are chief difficulties in crossing sandridges by wheeled vehicles.
At Guli Tank, where the water is only 2 or 3 feet below ground surface, a very mangy fox was seen lying in wait for galahs circling round the shallow water, and pink and grey feathers indicated one unfortunate success. On Lake Tobin, about 40 yards out from the edge and in a mallee and limestone clump, was one lonely rabbit burrow, from which an inmate was seen foraging amongst the desert oaks in the moonlight. Possibly the burrow reached water or the rabbits obtained sufficient moisture from nearby samphire.
Every well had its colourful and cheerful cloud of Diamond Sparrows fluttering round it and in and out of the nearby teatree, with many drowned and forming a floating covering over the surface. Other than these sparrows and galahs, the only other sign of bird life in hundreds of miles was a medium-sized hawk sitting on the ground 10 miles South of Well No. 48.
No cattle have travelled the Canning since July, 1959, and all signs are fast disappearing - in fact only in the rarest of places would other than a good bushman see any indication of the previous passage of cattle, even if standing in the centre of a sand-oblitered pad.
There are many native wells all through the Canning Basin, but with the now almost complete absence of aboriginals to point them out or use them these days, they are likely to be found only by accident. However, wherever the broad-leaved teatree is found in the flats and near the lakes, and especially if associated with outcropping limestone, water is generally assured, not always of plentiful supply, but usually drinkable and at an average depth of about 15 feet.
The troughings of the wells are rusted and broken, with many sections knocked out or pulled away, and the wood has rotted around the hinges of the heavy steel double-lids, which originally covered every well, but which are now mostly thrown aside, leaving the wells wide open. In drawing the water, the pathetic scum of dead birds was brushed to one side with the rope and bucket, after always the dread, in first looking down a well, of seeing a floating, bloated kangaroo or dingo, which had been unable to suffer its torture of thirst; but at only one well, No. 45, 35 feet deep and in danger of a complete cave-in, where there was something very much more powerful than a decomposition of sparrows and galahs, was the water boiled, half-gallon by half-gallon, before pouring into the main tank.
By compass and speedometer plot of the endless bends and deviations, position was usually known to almost half a mile, but even so, most of the wells visited were hidden in teatree as high as the tops of the derricks, and had to be approached to within 75 yards or so to be seen.
On a searing day, with everything in and out of the truck throbbing with heat, only those who have experienced it can know the sudden surge of relief and security at sight of decaying, grey posts and rails, with their promise of unlimited billies of tea and a proper wash instead of a damp handkerchief wipe - or can know the anxious care with which the whole vehicle is examined, and with which every last drop of water is poured into the main tank, the radiator, the two gallon emergency container, even the billycan and the bucket filled and covered with teatree branchlets to prevent slop - or know the reluctance of departure in leaving this refuge, with its friendly memories of the men who made it, and of the rather exclusive number of travellers, who, black or white, have undoubtedly equally thankful arrived, too, at its cool waters and its aura of safety.
The foregoing describes some of the less-known country crossed by the geodetic survey of Australia.
Acknowledgments are made to Miss Mollie Lukis of the Battye Library of West Australian History, who so kindly supplied micro-films of A. W. Canning's diaries of 1907-08 and 1930-31, and information of Tobin and of the drovers Thompson and Shoesmith; and to Mr. George Lanigan of Meekatharra, Western Australia with his unrivalled knowledge of the Stock Route over many years, and for his encouragement in a belief that normal four-wheel-drive vehicles, properly driven, could negotiate it.
Probably at no time since man roamed this continent, have there been so few people in some of the great sandridge areas. Fortunately, most of the inherent masters of the bush and of the vast areas over which they, their fathers and ancestors ranged, are temporarily in missions and reserves, whereby dedicated and selfless men and women, some are being prepared and trained, amongst other processes of assimilation, to manage and maintain their own cattle stations, an industry in which they have proved themselves superb stockmen. Perhaps in the not very distant future, with the aid of cheap, atomic - supplied water, they will again return to their lands of far horizons, and, though no less at home in their surroundings, with more advantage to themselves.
In this interim period, some geodetic parties have seen regions of Australia as it will not be seen again - before tracks will have bought dirty camps, rusty tins, broken bottles, litter, and the bones of drought-stricken stock, which, having eaten out the country for miles around a water and turned it into a real, live desert, will have stood around, hopeless-eyed, waiting for death.
Some of the members will have unforgettable memories - of the waters of Lake Eyre South lapping the railway bridge in 1955, with the Margaret and the Stuart almost at rail level on their bridges and both wider than the Murray; of driving for hundreds of miles in the Musgrave and Warburton Ranges in a sea of wildflowers with their delicate, faint, sweet perfume, and again in 1955 the unbelievable, fairy-tale sight of the whole of the Eastern slopes of the Flinders Ranges, from Wilpena Pound to the Blinman, completely clothed in blue Salvation Jane and pink dock, some slopes pure colour, some mixed, some merging, and all shimmering and rippling in the breeze; or, in moonlight only the inland knows, walking the shores of Lake Tobin, or camping amongst gums in some wide creek, with the campfire unflickering and out-matched; or, after searching unsuccessfully in a cliff corner of the Carnarvon Ranges for a possible rockhole, climbing higher in the deepening dusk ‘til led by (surely illusory ?) the merest tinkle of heart-leaping sound to a trickling spring; but perhaps most of all, the peace and, in George Lanigan's words, "the beauty of a big lot of desert".
Those (and foremost, be it again remembered, the early explorers and surveyors) who have assisted in this great fundamental survey, now nearing completion, have been privileged in no small way. It is an undertaking, as previously mentioned, which occurs once in a country's lifetime - once in Australia's lifetime.
Title page signed personally by the author H. A. Johnson
Copyright © Commonwealth of Australia, Geoscience Australia, 1964.
Geoscience Australia’s permission to use this material is appreciated and it is acknowledged that this material is Copyright © Commonwealth of Australia, Geoscience Australia. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the Chief Executive Officer, Geoscience Australia, Canberra, ACT.
Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from Geoscience Australia. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the Manager Copyright, Geoscience Australia, GPO Box 378, Canberra ACT 2601, or by email to email@example.com