DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
The first trek was two years in the planning. The aim was to escort two senior archaeologists into this remote region, to search for evidence of ancient Aboriginal occupation in what is today an arid, desert region, with no surface water. The second trek is a round-trip journey from Birdsville, recounted by Peter Harland, an OTA website visitor.
Geosurveys Hill is one of the very few rock deposits in the Simpson Desert. It boasts a trig point, which while less significant in today’s GPS-navigation age, made it a reference point for the 1960s seismic surveyors, who were relying on stellar and lunar navigation.
In bygone years its silcrete crest was obviously a reliable ‘island’ for Aboriginal navigators in this great sand sea.
For our two archaeologists, Dr Mike Smith and Dr June Ross, the Hill had less appeal as a destination than several valleys en route.
What is now Geosurveys Hill was obviously a source of implement stone for the ancient aboriginal peoples, but significant ceremonies took place well away from the Hill’s rocky slopes and evidence of those events is what the scientists were seeking.
In October 1962 an archaeologist, Norman Tindale, was flown deep into the Northern Simpson dune field, to follow up reports of prehistoric occupation exposed on stone covered claypans between some dunes.
Tindale, then at the South Australian Museum, had been invited to make the trip by Reg Sprigg, managing director of Geosurveys of Australia Pty Ltd, one of several companies prospecting the Simpson Desert for oil and gas in the 1960s.
On their trips north of the French Line, Reg Sprigg’s staff had noticed an area where: “long lines of stones on a claypan disappear under sand hills”.
Although he had planned for several days’ fieldwork, Tindale only had a few hours in the area, because the plane was forced to return to collect him before impending rain made the claypans too soft to land on.
His brief investigation showed extensive stone arrangements on several pans, as well as scatters of chipped stone artefacts which Tindale thought represented two phases of occupation. The older and more extensive phase he thought might be 6000-8000 years old and the other was more ephemeral and dated within the last 1000 years.
Tindale intended to follow up his initial visit: “I am on 24 hours notice to go again,” he’s reported as saying, but the opportunity never came.
It’s easy to see why not. Museum budgets aren’t exactly flush and the area in question is in the middle of nowhere. Getting into the region is difficult and requires fuel support.
When Allan Whiting heard of the National Museum’s interest in following up Norman Tindale’s brief investigation he jumped at the chance to help out with vehicles and logistic support.
Geosurveys Hill would not be our prime objective on this trek it was the point we aimed for initially.
From that reference position we planned to trace the most likely route followed by ancient nomadic aboriginals as they travelled south into the Simpson from the northern rivers region and look for signs of their ceremonial sites.
There are several ways to arrive at Geosurveys Hill and all of them are difficult. Our chosen route, to use permit-only sections of the Coulson Track and then the Madigan Line, was dictated by two main factors: the operating range of 4WDs and the places the archaeologists needed to check out en route.
At first, we thought of running the Coulson north from the French Line, as far as the intersection with a well-mapped transverse ‘shot’ line, from where we would make east to a dune valley that would lead us north-west to Geosurveys Hill.
The first half of this plan looked fine, but left us with a dilemma for the return route. What if the shot-line dunes had very steep eastern faces that were difficult to climb on the return leg? Sure, we could run south down the dune valleys to the French line, but we might have insufficient fuel to make it to Mt Dare.
Another issue with the shot-line access route was a phenomenon we’ve encountered in the Great Sandy Desert: the ‘undercut’ nature of bulldozed shot lines traps water runoff, encouraging more plant and tree growth in the shot-line than in the surrounding terrain. What in theory should be an easy path
sometimes becomes very difficult.
An alternative approach we checked out was crossing the QAA and French Lines from Birdsville, with a dune-valley excursion up to Geosurveys Hill and a return to the French Line, but this route required too much fuel, necessitating a tricky fuel drop in the middle of the Simpson.
Also this route meant that we mightn’t meet the archaeologists’ aims of examining the terrain to the north-west of Geosurveys Hill, where the ancient river flows originated.
In the end, we settled on an approach to Geosurveys Hill from the north, via permit-only sections of the Coulson Track and the Madigan Line. A big plus for this route was the ease of leaving a fuel drop on the Coulson or the Madigan, to provide adequate fuel for the retrun to Alice Springs.
Off the beaten track
With permits in our vehicles, we waved goodbye to Alice Springs and headed south on the blacktop, aiming for the Coulson Track.
The top end of the Coulson Track was in pretty good condition, but we were one of the first convoys through for this season, so we stopped frequently to clear the track of stakes.
At our designated fuel dump, we fuelled each vehicle and then rolled two full drums into a hiding place in the bush.
From this overnight stop, not far from the Madigan Line, we expected an easy run to Camp 6 and, with any luck, an overnight at Camp 8.
The relatively flat run around the prohibited area of the north Coulson and the west Madigan Tracks was easy enough and we were at Camp 6 in time for an early lunch. But from Camp 6 the Madigan proved to be a very difficult trek.
We skated over the first, low Simpson dunes, but then they became taller and fatter, with deep, soft, windblown tops that had to be ploughed through. In between the peaky dunes were valleys choked with porcupine grass clumps half a metre high, separated from each other by deep rain and wind eroded channels.
It was slow going that wasn’t helped by the fact that we were the first vehicles to attempt the Madigan this season: the track was difficult to sight in some places and was littered with sharp, hard, dead wood that was just looking for tyres to pierce.
The grass clumps proved to be the most uncomfortable surface we travelled over, with all four wheels at different degrees of deflection and the uneven spacing of the clumps making it impossible to achieve more than walking speed over them.
We lost the track in several places, relying on our Hema Desert Tracks mapping to give us a pointer.
Suffice to say that our low-range crawling got us nowhere near Camp 8 at sundown, so we settled for the relative comforts of Cecil Madigan’s Camp 7.
Next morning’s vehicle check showed no tyre stakes, so we mounted up for another day on the Madigan Line. The track from Camp 7 to Camp 8 was easier than the previous day’s slog, but while the grass clump mounds diminished in size the dunes grew.
The western slopes were gradual enough, apart from deep, soft sand drifts on the tops, but the eastern faces we slid down became progressively steeper. This wasn’t a concern for our outward journey, but posed some bogging hazards for the return trip, when we’d be meeting them head-on.
However, like Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ we determined to face that problem ‘tomorrow’. We’d get over the dunes somehow, but first we had to accomplish our goal of finding aboriginal habitation evidence in the Simpson dunefield.
The relatively easy running from Camp 7 to Camp 8 saw us there in time for lunch and all eyes turned south, down a pretty, green dune valley where we were bound.
We were aiming to track with GPS direction towards Geosurveys Hill; a course that meant we had a few closed dune valleys to cross and one or two major ridges.
The dune valley patch we’d planned to run to Geosurveys Hill looked invitingly simple. Needless to say, the smooth surface didn’t last. The verdant, flat, sandy dune floor soon turned to the familiar porcupine grass mounds, but these were even larger than the Madigan clumps and hadn’t ever been compressed
by vehicle tyres.
Progress slowed and the vehicles tossed, plunged and bucked over the uneven ground. We could have got out and walked faster!
We tried several strategies to avoid the worst of the lumpy valley floors and the most successful was to run beside the dune bases, along the narrow stretch
of sand between the steep face and the dense grass clumps.
That meant weaving up and down the side slopes, judging when the grade was getting to the tricky point and then running down towards the valley floor, onto flatter ground, then working our way into the clearer ground once more.
In some places we could run along the windblown tops of the smaller dunes, but this tactic was fraught with danger and we were constantly on the lookout for the rippled signs of soft, windblown drifts. More than one of these collapsed downhill on us, dictating a sudden ‘steer into the skid’ reaction, to stop the vehicles from toppling on their sides.
It took us more than five hours to cover the 40-odd, direct-line kilometres to a point where we could see the sunlit, crooked finger of Geosurveys Hill poking up out of the surrounding sand ridges. We pressed on along a shallow dune top and arrived there right on dark.
We had no mechanical problems; the tanks still showed near-full; everyone was fit and happy and we had only one tyre with a plugged stake hole in it. Cooper had provided tyres for all the vehicles and the rubber was standing up very well. Elation around the campfire that night.
The scientific work
Now it was time for the two archaeologists to do their bit. Mike Smith had warned us that Geosurveys Hill wouldn’t be the location that yielded the occupational evidence they were seeking.
He and June Ross expected to see the Geosurveys Hill site littered with shattered stones – evidence of the significant Aboriginal quarrying activities over thousands of years – but the ceremonial sites would be found quite some distance from Geosurveys Hill, where there would once have been surface
The two archaeologists pottered, trowled, dusted, measured, noted and photographed all day at Geosurveys Hill, but next morning it was time to move off, in search of what we thought might be a needle in a haystack.
However, as long as we were meandering through the dunefield in a roughly north-westerly direction it was taking us back towards the Madigan Line and our precious fuel resupply, so we were happy enough with that situation. In fact, the more west we made, through any lower dune sections we might find, the fewer steep Madigan dunes we’d have to climb.
Later that day, Mike and June found what they were seeking. To us the stony claypans looked quite natural and similar to hundreds we’ve seen over many years of desert travel, but the scientists were onto these ones in a flash.
What from the distance looked like random, scattered stones turned out to be anything but. There were dozens of man-made stone circles and lines running in various directions, as well as cleared circular areas.
On parts of the claypans, closer to the ‘shore’ there were piles of shattered stones, similar to the broken shards we’d seen at Geosurveys Hill. Once we were shown what they were it was easy to envisage ancient workmen, sitting on their haunches, chipping away at stones they’d carried all the way from
The archaeologists discarded their scientific cool – well almost – and were visibly delighted with their findings. Two days later they thought they had the area pretty well worked out and at this point we’ll let Dr Mike Smith and Dr June Ross take up the story:
‘The early to mid Holocene period is only poorly documented in archaeological sequences across arid Australia, yet this was a period of significant environmental change with new opportunities for Aboriginal populations.
‘The post-glacial period from 13,000 BP (Before the Present Era – Ed) is likely to have seen some of the most favourable conditions for hunter-gatherer settlement in the desert, peaking around 6000-7000 BP followed by a deteriorating climate after about 5000 BP.
‘Today, the northern Simpson Desert is the most marginal area within the Simpson dunefield, itself one of most arid parts of the Australian continent.
‘With annual rainfall less than 150 mm, the area consists of active sand ridges, with open spinifex steppe and isolated stands of grevillea in broad inter-dune swales.
‘There are few claypans or rock outcrops and none of the small mikri wells that underpinned Wangkangkuru settlement in the central and southern sections of the dunefield.
‘The claypans have stone arrangements of different ages, consisting of single or occasionally multiple lines of silcrete cobbles, stone piles, and sometimes circles of stone or cleared areas.
‘Tindale (the first archaeologist to visit this region – Ed) thought the latter were areas swept clean to prepare calandrinia seed or possibly the sites of huts.
‘We think both of these explanations are unlikely: the positions are exposed to strong south-easterly winds and there are no seed-grinding implements in local artefact scatters.
‘Rather, the cleared areas seem aligned to articulate in some way with the last phase of stone arrangements.
‘Several stone arrangements are clearly of some antiquity, as they consist of disarticulated or dispersed lines of stones, with several phases of rebuilding on different alignments.
‘The most recent arrangements consist of stone piles or intact discrete geometric arrangements, generally covering relatively small areas (up to 50 by 20m) at the southern ends of the pans.
‘Although early Holocene occupation of this dunefield remains a distinct possibility, the balance of evidence points to late Holocene occupation.
‘Both the artefact scatters and the stone arrangements suggest episodic occupation within the late Holocene, separated by periods of disuse.
‘We systematically searched the margins of the pans for hearths, hoping to establish a radiocarbon chronology for the site, but even where occupation remains lay on the more indurated sands of exposed dune cores, no hearths, fireplaces or pits were preserved.
‘We are unable, therefore, to determine whether or not use of the area correlates with documented changes in prehistoric settlement, elsewhere in central Australia, at 3000 BP or at 1000-1500 BP, but the latter seems likely, as paleoclimatic data registers an increase in extreme rainfall events during this period.
‘It is unlikely in the time available that Tindale actually reached Geosurveys Hill itself or the silcrete quarry there. If he had he would certainly have realised that much of the character of the stone assemblage is due to its relative proximity to a silcrete quarry, rather than an early Holocene age.’
archaeological team had found and recorded what it sought, so it was time to return to civilisation.
It was handy that the team had picked up plenty of trackless desert driving practice on the way in, because the going became tougher on the way out.
All the sand ridges we now faced were steep-faced, but we needed to climb as many as we could, making west as far as possible, before we hit the steepies we’d already run down on the Madigan Line.
We set Camp 6 as the ideal target on the GPS and saw the bright red ‘go to’ line come up on the GPS screen. That line would haunt us for the next two days, as we struggled to align our track with it.
Each steep-faced dune we faced went on for kilometres, before giving us a shallow break we could dive through. Then it was bounce, bounce, bounce across the clumpy dune valley and run along the base of the next dune, looking for the breakthrough point.
The only respite from this routine was when we had the relative ease of a dune-top run: smoother and straighter than the valley route.
We camped at the base of one particularly steep dune on the first night of the return journey and clambered to the top of it for a view of the country ahead. We were hoping hoping to see a smooth, flat claypan to skim over, but the scene was the same as far as the eye could scan: sand ridges running west to the setting sun, with the darkening valleys between choked with porcupine grass.
The next day’s run was a mirror image of the first of our return journey, except that we abandoned any hope of cutting out the steep Madigan dunes. The red ‘go to’ line on the GPS screen had long since become an unachievable track, so we just ran the dune edges north-west, crossing each one when it was easy, but without the previous day’s urgency.
We’d deal with the Madigan sand hills when we got there.
As it turned out, we chiselled a fair distance to the west and hit the Madigan Line not far from the dry bed of the Illogwa River, where we camped for the night. We’d managed to avoid about half the Madigan dunes and we’d attack the remainder next day.
Like many expectations this one was less fearful than we thought. We had trouble on only three hills and the stuck vehicles were close to the crests when they bogged down, making it relatively simple to tow them over.
We camped at our fuel ‘hide’, after filling the vehicles with the drums we’d planted. Next morning saw us on the Coulson Track once more and it seemed like a super highway after what we’d been driving over.
Not long after, we were in civilisation again and the team broke up, until next time.
The Sprigg Family legacy
The credit for finding the aboriginal visitation evidence in this remote part of the Simpson Desert goes to the Spriggs. In 1962, Reg and Griselda Sprigg, with their two young children, were the first people to cross the Simpson Desert by motorised vehicle – a year before the French Line was cut through the dunes.
Their family company, Geosurveys of Australia Pty Ltd, was engaged in oil and gas exploration in Central Australia and it was one of their teams that came across what is now Geosurveys Hill and the distinctive aboriginal relics.
During our trip we came across vehicle tracks that we’re pretty sure were made more than 40 years ago by the Geosurveys of Australia supply trucks. We also found a discarded oil drum and campsite remains, including some rusty cans.
On a separate trip, with Jol Fleming, to the Plenty Lakes, we came across a bottle containing the Sprigg Family signatures, on aluminium tags.
Many years later the Sprigg Family moved to the Flinders Ranges, where Griselda’s and Reg’s legacy continues today, at the magnificent flora and fauna reserve of Arkaroola.
This second Geosurveys Hill trek was planned around a start and finish in Birdsville. A trip to cross the Simpson Desert from the South East to North West incorporating the Geographical Centre and Geosurveys Hill was on Peter Harland’s bucket list for a number of years. With two mates, he decided to give it a go.
There was very little information on
his proposed trip, other than getting to the Geographical Centre from the Coulson Track and Geosurveys Hill from Madigan Camp 8 in the north. There was nothing he could find on joining the two.
The three vehicles were: Peter’s 1992 naturally-aspirated Toyota HZJ75 diesel, carrying 220 litres of fuel; Terry’s 2007 Toyota HZJ79 V8 turbo diesel with 260 litres of diesel and Rob’s 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser, with modified suspension, carrying 290 litres of petrol. The fuel carried gave a range of approximately
1000km of desert travel.
They obtained permits for the Madigan Line, because the route took in the Madigan from Camp 8 east to Birdsville. They checked with Don Rowlands, the Queensland National Park Ranger in Birdsville and obtained permission to cross through the Munga-Thirri National Park on the Queensland side of the border.
We’ll let Peter’s diary tell the story from here:
Day 1. 127km
We left Birdsville early. At the base of Big Red we lowered our tyre pressures to 16psi rear and 14psi front. We bypassed Big Red as we fully laden with fuel etc. and took the chicken run – Little Red – onto the QAA Line.
Each year we go out there the track deteriorates. Don Rowlands warned us the QAA Line was badly cut up, particularly towards Poeppel’s Corner. As this was to be a transit section, our destination was to camp off the QAA line a few kilometres up the Hay River Track. This is a good place to camp with
plenty of wood and gidgee trees.
Day 2. 70km/197km
We thought of accessing an old shot line to Thomas Number 1 Oil Well off the Hay River Track. It was difficult to find and looked rough. We opted to go via Poeppel’s Corner to Thomas Oil Well turnoff on the French Line. The 30 kms from Poeppel’s Corner to the turnoff was very rough and similar to the end of the QAA Line.
The drive up to Thomas Oil Well was
good and followed the edge of a clay/salt pans. The oil well was located behind a small dune at the end of the last claypan. There were two drill holes, one capped, probably the oil well, and other put in as a water bore needed for the drilling rig?
We searched around the wells and found a track north that appeared to have been used this year and had been driven coming from the north. The track was still well defined and was heading in the direction we wanted to go. We followed this track north and camped at a good campsite a few kilometres from
the oil well.
Day 3. 42km/257km
We were still heading north. The wheel tracks were still visible and the shot line was also becoming more evident, particularly through the lightly timber gidgee. The wheel tracks we were following turned to a westerly direction, following another shot line and the going became rougher as we were heading across the dunes and not driving up the swales. This was reflected in 42km in seven hours travel time.
We continued on for a few more kilometres until we found a patch of our favourite gidgee and made camp.
Day 4. 40km/297km
We were continuing in westerly direction. The wheel tracks were still evident and the going was extremely rough – slower than walking pace. Between the dunes were constant moguls, rocking the vehicles from side to side and back and forwards, all in one movement. You needed to keep your seat belt on to avoid being thrown out the window!
Fortunately the dunes to cross were easy and gave minor respite to the rocking. We were tired and hoping a patch of gidgees would turn up. It did and we made camp for the night.
Day 5. 58km/357km
We were still heading west
when we intersected with the northerly shot line that had had some use and was well defined. This track would have come off the Coulson Track shot line. Once on this shot line our speed increased.
We reached the point where the track again headed west to the Geographical Centre of the Simpson Desert. We arrived there about 1400 hours, took the mandatory photographs and proceeded on for another hour, heading North West towards Geosurveys Hill, before making camp.
Day 6. 38km/395km
The track from the Geocentre had been used by a group heading south from Geosurveys Hill. It was extremely rough and we had trouble with the dunes: approaching from the east we needed several attempts to cross or detour around some of them.
We came to one particularly bad dune that we couldn’t cross. The sand was very loose and deep on all the dunes we had crossed so far. This mother was about 40 metres, very steep and loose. We had no choice but to follow it north until we found a suitable place to cross.
As luck would have it, we picked up some faint tracks from last year or earlier, heading north along the eastern edge of the dune. GPS location was approximately 25.11.04.6 S and 18.104.22.168 E. This fellow knew how to cross dunes, slowly working his way up until a suitable spot was found to cross. The dunes were not a problem from then on. We camped that night 10km from Geosurveys Hill on a flat sandy spot in a swale.
Day 7. 57km/452km
The going was still rough but our new friend, whose tracks we were following, made the dune crossings easier. We arrived at Geosurveys Hill about 1100 hours. It’s a real oddity being a rock hill in a sand desert. The view was great, belying the difficulty to get there.
We arrived on the eastern side of the Hill and would recommend to anyone travelling south to use this track as well. The track north to Madigan Camp 8 was well used by day trippers from Camp 8 and was good going. We suffered our only puncture six kilometres from the Hill.
We reached Madigan Camp 8 and camped in a patch of gidgees, the first we had seen since Day 4.
It was here that I discovered that
I had broken my front left hand spring shackle. It was totally destroyed. We set about doing a temporary repair. Terry fabricated a sort of shackle out of tent pegs, supplied by Rob, and using a wooden jack base, we split off a suitable width of wood to jam between the spring and the chassis mount. It was going to be a steady trip back to Birdsville.
I reported into the VKS737 Radio Network about my predicament. An incident report was opened. They contacted Birdsville Auto who said they could supply a second hand shackle and bushes. I have been travelling 20 years in all the deserts of Australia and never had an incident until then. It pays to have a HF radio and belong to a network that delivers. Thanks VKS737 Radio Network: they are there 24/7 for assistance.
This was the end of our trackless adventure and what an adventure it was: extremely rough and hard on both vehicle and the driver. The rest of the trip via the Madigan Line back to Birdsville was a transport section of 380km to limp into Birdsville.
Day 8. 56km/508km
We had previously driven the Madigan Line in 2015, when we had to look for the track in places as it was mostly faint. Now it was well used and defined.
We set off slowly, stopping every 10km to check the repair and driving at 10km/h. The repair was holding well, giving hope we would get to Birdsville OK. We camped the night on Madigan’s Claypan,halfway between Camps 11 and 12.
Day 9. 95km/603km
As we headed east the track conditions improved, enabling me to increase speed to 15km/h. Making good time we camped that night 11km east of Camp 16. We were camping in spinifex country and had to very careful with our fire.
Day 10. 104km/707km
Another good transit day. There were a couple of minor adjustments to the block of wood. Once we got to Camp 17 we knew the track would keep improving to the QAA Line.
Someone ahead of us wasn’t careful with fire, burning out a large area of spinifex from Camp 17 north up the swale. We camped at Camp 20 that night.
Day 11. 162km/869km
From Camp 20 we were within striking distance of Birdsville. We arrived at the QAA Line intersection about 1100 hours and made the decision to continue to Birdsville.
The QAA line was rough and progress was steady. We arrived at Big Red and my mates crossed it while I went south and crossed at Little Red. We arrived in Birdsville about 1530 hours.
This trip is not for the faint hearted.
I can’t emphasise how rough it is in places and it goes on for days. My vehicle was 25 years old and, in hindsight, it was not a good idea to take an old vehicle on a trip like this, although it is well maintained.
I used 81 litres for the first 350 kms before we got to the Geographical Centre, averaging 4.3km per litre. For the total trip, Birdsville back to Birdsville, I travelled 869km and used 172 litres, averaging 5.2km per litre.
Apart from the broken left front shackle, I broke the exhaust brackets, got a leak in the air-conditioning, split the engine pipe and lost both my HF and UHF radios to loose connections. Fortunately, both radios stayed alive until Birdsville and were repaired there, as well as the front shackle.
Before we left I told my mates that this was my last desert trip. My old truck is getting near its expiry date, as I am, and this trip was to be our swan song. However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the trip.