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Taking it to the edge: Land: Simpson Desert - Madigan sets out

Setting out

''This little desert was obviously a tough nut to crack, and the journey was not one to be lightly undertaken.''
CT Madigan Crossing the Dead Heart Adelaide, Rigby, 1974 page 13

The party travelled to Abminga by train, then by truck to Andado Station, where they met up with the camel train overseen by Jack, with Nurie and Andrew.  From Andado the expedition moved north to the junction of the Hale and Todd Rivers.  From here the expedition would head east to the Queensland border, thence south- east to Birdsville.  Madigan proposed crossing the desert west to east to better assess the sandridges.  A north to south crossing would have meant travelling between the dunes and would not have been rewarding.  Their crossing was north of 25 degrees which would take them through the middle of the desert. Madigan was aware in part of the problems he faced because of his aerial reconnaissance in 1929.

The crossing proper began on 10 June.  They carried 232 gallons of water for the men.  It was anticipated that the camels would not need any, as green feed was expected along the way. Twelve miles into the march the country began to deteriorate, with the sandridges becoming more regular and closer.  Seventy were crossed on the second day, and spinifex began to predominate, and camel feed became scarce.  The sandridges were roughly four to the mile and rising to 80 feet.  It rained at Camp 8 and water was caught in the ground sheets to supplement their supplies.  From this camp they made the first of their national radio broadcasts, using a Traeger pedal set.  Cross sections of the sandridges and soil samples were taken.  Some claypans were found with water in them and populated with birds - budgerigars, crows, finches and chats.  The country was continuing to deteriorate, and the rate of travel slowed to two miles an hour, and sandridges were now 100 feet high.  Camel feed was practically non-existent.  Return was not an option - they anticipated daily reaching the area where rain should have fallen.

Shortly after departing Camp 10 a claypan full of water and surrounded by excellent camel fodder was found.  They camped immediately for the sake of the camels.  Conditions continued to improve after this, with the height of the sandridges reducing to about 30 feet.  Between Camps 12 and 13 gum-trees began to appear.  Another broadcast was made from Camp 13.  Madigan then wrote 'As the Hay River was approached the sandridges became low and irregular.  Eighty were crossed in 16 miles between Camps 13 and 14.  In the heart of the desert the sandridges had been red and forbidding, serrating the horizon with their jagged crests, but now from the top of a ridge, the country looked flat and the yellow spinifex stalks gave it the friendly appearance of a great wheat field.'

Queensland border reached

Another radio broadcast was made from Camp 16 and a tree was blazed M39.  The next camp was at the Queensland border.  The expedition now headed south-east to Birdsville.  They had crossed the Simpson Desert in 19 days, 626 sandridges in 204 miles.  In the end they had had rather more water than they wanted, being held up by rain for two days at Kuddaree Waterhole and their route from 'Kalliduwarry to Birdsville was a most miserable one, with rain, bitter winds and water lying about'.  They reached Birdsville 6 July and after four days rest, and then began the final stage of the expedition to Marree via the Diamantina River and Lake Eyre.  This was territory that had been explored by Warburton and Lewis in the 19th century.

The expedition had accomplished its aims: 'the desert had been crossed; much more had been discovered about the nature of this unique physiographic region with its remarkable ribbing of sandridges; Mr Croker had made a complete plant collection under most favourable conditions; all members had assisted in the collection of animal life, in which the energy and keenness of Andy the Aboriginal man had been outstanding…'  14 new species of spiders were identified.

The full reports of the expedition were not written up until 1945, because of the intervention of World War II in which Madigan and many others participated. In addition to the scientific reports, Madigan also published a popular account Crossing the Dead Heart in 1946.

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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