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Taking it to the edge: did you know? The motor vehicle in Australian exploration: Finlayson

HH Finlayson

HH Finlayson in his book The red centre published 1935 also has some words to say about the car. Finlayson was a natural history collector, and generally used camels. He found that he achieved on average no better distances with the motor car than he had with camels. 'In planning the trip we had confidently reckoned on a minimum of fifty miles a day, and thought there might be days when that figure would be multiplied by two. Actually our best day's run when breaking tracks over virgin country was forty nine miles, while our average run for a ten hours' day was thirty miles. This is no more than we can do with pack camels; with riding camels it could be exceeded by one-third.' He wrote further 'with a load of sixteen hundred weight and four passengers we averaged nine miles to the gallon petrol, and by exercising the greatest care in cooling off at every opportunity, water consumption (a vital matter) was kept down to six gallons a day. Fully two thirds of the mileage was done in second or low gear.' The noise and 'the incessant wrenching and jolting' as the car travelled the virgin terrain was another drawback. In addition Finlayson noted that his Aboriginal guides were at times confused about localities from the higher perspective of the car and its erratic speed, when they were used to the traditional speed of foot travel.

Around Australia in a Pontiac

The toughness of the ordinary street car was amazing as testified in these few accounts. One more pre- World War II account will conclude this theme. In 1937 a survey party was sent out to assess a possible route round Australia for a car rally to celebrate Australia's 150th anniversary of white settlement. C Price Conigrave recorded the trip in Around Australia in a Pontiac. Two standard Pontiac coupes, with an additional 60 gallon petrol tank fitted to give them a range of 1000 miles, were sponsored by the National Roads and Motorists Association of NSW. Conigrave was the writer and photographer for a group of Australian newspapers. They travelled on good and bad roads, good and bad tracks and over no tracks at all.  Conigrave records opening and shutting every station gate that was passed, and there were a frustrating number of them. The cars survived the journey better than the drivers and passengers as Conigrave writes 'Whilst our two trusty cars were still running perfectly as ever despite the rough gruelling they had had we ourselves were completely fagged out when at last we arrived' [at Norseman].  He also notes one of the difficulties of motor transport far from the cities: 'In the Fortescue country we had an instance of the difficulty of inland transport for we came upon a motor teamster who with a large wagon had been carrying bullocks...one wheel on the wagon had suddenly collapsed. It was a Sunday when we met him and he told us that it would be the following Thursday before his off-sider came back with a new wheel.'  Triumphantly at the end of the journey there were only three punctures between the two cars.

CT Madigan in his Simpson Desert expedition of 1939 used a truck to get supplies to the edge of the desert but then used camels for the crossing.

The exploits of Tom Kruse, mailman of the Birdsville Track, are well recorded, and need no repeating here.  The motor vehicle came of age in the Australian outback after World War II, as the network of graded tracks established by Len Beadell opened up the bush.  It is still necessary though when going off track to establish fuel and supply dumps in advance and to be equipped with satellite phones, a luxury that Terry and SA White, Birtles and Beadell never had.

Further reading:

Birtles, Francis 3,500 miles across Australia in a Ford car: from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Port Phillip Bay. Adelaide: Duncan & Fraser Ltd., [1914?]

Conigrave, C. Price  Around Australia in a Pontiac [Sydney: C.P. Conigrave, 1937] (Sydney: Commercial Copying)

Davis, Pedr Wheels across Australia: motoring from the 1890s to the 1980s. Hurstville, N.S.W.: Marque Publishing, 1987

Ellis, M. H. (Malcolm Henry), The long lead: across Australia by motor car. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1927

Finlayson, H. H. The red centre: man and beast in the heart of Australia Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935

Linn, Rob Nature's pilgrim: the life and journeys of Captain S.A. White, naturalist, author and conservationist Netley, S. Aust.: South Australian Government Printer, 1989

Terry, Michael Across unknown Australia London: Herbert Jenkins, 1925

Weidenbach, Kristin Mailman of the Birdsville Track: the story of Tom Kruse Sydney, N.S.W.: Hodder Headline Australia, 2003

Aunger drives a Dort across river
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Car climbing the Depot Sandhills, 1907
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Car descending a sandhill, 1907
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Deep river crossing
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Dutton and Aunger leave Alice Springs, 1907
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Motoring in the Northern Territory
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