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Taking it to the edge: Land: Simpson Desert - 1929 aerial surveys

1929 aerial surveys

''Here then was an interesting bit of exploration to be done, to find out what lay behind the forbidding borders of this unknown area, and the aeroplane was the obvious means of solving the problem.''
CT Madigan Crossing the Dead Heart Adelaide, Rigby, 1974 page 1

Nine flights were made, and two cameras were used with exposures being made every five minutes.  The flights were made over 15 days as follows: (1) Broken Hill to Marree (2) Marree to Birdsville (3) Birdsville to Alice Springs (4) Alice Springs east to Lake Caroline on the Hay River, then south for 50 miles and back to Alice Springs (5) Alice Springs, west over the western MacDonnell Range (6) Alice Springs to Oodnadatta (7) Oodnadatta to Lake Eyre thence to Marree (8) Marree to Lake Eyre South and Lake Eyre North and return to Marree (9) from Marree along the railway line to Douglas Creek, then down Lake Torrens to Quorn.

The first two flights were over territory that was already known from the ground, but provided useful guidelines and experience for those to come.  Flight 3 took them into unknown territory, and Madigan was to write 'after two hours flying, our hopes of undiscovered ranges, wooded watercourses from the MacDonnells…had to be abandoned.  The men who had started on camels had been wise to turn back.  Their worst fears were confirmed.'  He also wrote that the spinifex was 'easily recognized from the air by its hollow rings, outward growing masses from which the centre has decayed and disappeared.'  The fourth flight again covered previously untravelled territory and again negative results were found: sand ridges, clay pans and spinifex.  The prospects of finding a range of mountains within the 28,000 square miles of unknown land were diminishing.  Flight 5 over the MacDonnells was over known territory but useful to Madigan to help greatly to unravel the problems of the geology of the Ranges.

The sixth flight would again cover the unknown territory.  Again no outstanding geographical features were seen - more sandridges running 'uninterrupted to the horizon…a monotonous desert of pink, spinifex-dotted sandhills, with no sign of claypans.'  Madigan concluded his report 'There was little to record but the direction and relative closeness of the monotonous ribbing of sandhills, the variation in the sparseness of the mulga and spinifex vegetation, and the presence or absence of claypans.  The streams running in a general south-south-east direction from the MacDonnell Ranges peter out in sandhills of the northern part of the area, even the Hay failing to connect with the Mulligan or Goyder's Lagoon.'  He continued 'This must surely be one of the most uniform topographical areas in the world.  There is absolutely nothing inside it to warrant further attempts by prospectors to penetrate it.'  Flights 7 to 9 did not contribute to the knowledge of the unknown territory.  In recognition of the support for his work, Madigan named this inhospitable region after AA Simpson-the Simpson Desert.

For Madigan's full report of his aerial reconnaissance see Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch, vol 30, 1928-29 pages 83-108.

1939 crossing

In 1938 Madigan delivered the WB Clarke lecture to the Royal Society of New South Wales on the Simpson Desert, and it was after this that he decided that a full scientific investigation of the Desert should be conducted.  Edmund (Ted) Colson has crossed it in 1936 but no scientific studies had been conducted and the journey was made almost entirely along the 26th parallel, the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory.  Again AA Simpson agreed to finance an expedition into the desert.  An expedition with camels was fitted out in 1939, taking advantage of two good seasons of rain.  A truck was used in the very early stages of the expedition but only until the sandridges began.  The expedition would examine the physical geography, botany and zoology of the desert and the selected party reflected this:  RL Croker, botanist, HO Fletcher from the Australian Museum as biological collector, Madigan as geologist, D Marshall was photographer; RA Simpson, wireless operator, A Hubbard, cook; Jack Bejah, camel man, helped by Nur Mahommed Moocha; and Andrew an Aboriginal man from Marree.  The camels were provided by Bejah Dervish (Jack's father) who had been with Larry Wells on the Calvert Exploring Expedition.

 

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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