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Taking it to the edge: Land: Simpson Desert - Colson

Ted Colson

A number of explorers had penetrated or otherwise skirted the Simpson Desert, beginning with Charles Sturt in 1844-5, Warburton in 1866, James Lewis in 1874-5 and David Lindsay in 1886, who followed a line of wells across the desert, but did not complete a crossing before turning back. Cecil Madigan did an aerial reconnaissance in 1929, but would not explore the desert on the ground until 1939.  In May 1936, Edmund Colson, a pastoralist at Blood Creek Station, knowing that good rains had fallen throughout the area, decided that it might be time to attempt a full crossing of the desert from west to east and back again. He was inspired by Cecil Madigan's aerial reconnaissance. It was Madigan who had named the great desert below him the Simpson Desert after A A Simpson, his sponsor and President of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch).

Colson was accompanied only by an Aboriginal man named Peter Ains, and five camels, two of which were riding camels.  He was equipped with provisions for two months, prismatic compasses and maps. His water containers gave him a 'safe ration of water for the whole of the distance across the desert, plus a 50 percent margin in case of accidents.'

On his outward path Colson and Ains travelled along the 26º parallel with 'approximately 140 miles of absolutely unknown country to cross.'  He named some hills near Mount Etingamba after his wife Alice. The sandhills he encountered were not at first difficult, but became increasingly so; some 50 miles east of Mount Etingamba and on the far side of a particularly steep dune he found a small flat with luxuriant pasture. This pattern of steep dunes interspersed with good pasture continued for the next five days. He found a dry salt lake and named it Lake Tamblyn, after an old friend. The sand dunes continued but were now interspersed with dry salt lakes rather than vegetation.  Colson experienced some difficulty finding Poeppel Corner because of sand drift over the years since it was surveyed; and the brush piles that had served as trig points had rotted and dispersed.  However, he did find the surveyed line at post 182, marking 182 miles from Haddon Corner. Colson found all the posts, but one, to be in good condition-made of Acacia peuce known locally as waddy, this timber is iron hard and heavy.  He also encountered the 'remains of the old vermin board rabbit-proof fence, which was erected over fifty years ago by the Vermin Board in an attempt to repel the fast invading army of rabbits…'.  Colson and his companion reached Birdsville on 11 June a week earlier than expected and left for the return trip two days later. After diverting somewhat to visit a friend at Alton Downs Station he returned to his outward track and followed this back to Poeppel Corner.  He was determined to establish why he had missed it previously.  When Colson did reach it he found that he had only missed it before by 300 yards.  He photographed the post from each side and found it to be in good condition.  From Lake Tamblyn he deviated to the south-west and found travelling conditions were better.  He considered this route to be suitable for vehicles.  Colson later angled back to the north-west to reach Mount Etingamba and reached home on 29 June. He had been absent 36 days and had travelled nearly 600 miles, unsupported and with no prospects of financial reward. He was the first European to cross completely the Simpson Desert.

Cecil Madigan

CT Madigan had been interested in the geology of central Australia for some time and was aware that there was a large portion that was still unexplored.  Various explorers in the late 19th century had touched upon the area, and largely been repelled by its sterility.  Among these were Charles Sturt in 1845, Peter Warburton in 1866, JW Lewis in 1874 and David Lindsay in 1886.  In 1929 Madigan decided to use modern technology to reveal the inhospitable region.  With the assistance of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) and its President Mr AA Simpson, and the Defence Department, he obtained the loan of two Westland Wapiti aeroplanes, with their aircrew, and undertook an aerial survey of the region.  This was one of the earliest systematic aerial reconnaissances in Australia. 

1939 Simpson Desert Expedition [film]
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Aerial views of Central Australia
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Aerial views of the Mulligan and Simpson Desert
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No rain in night but heavy overcast : diary entry 16 Ju
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Simpson Desert explorations
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The expedition waits for their gear to dry
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The ridges are big and irregular on top : diary entry 1
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