Finding the lost Simpson Wells

By Bill Collyer

Prior to European arrival, a small group of aborigines called the Wangkangurru deemed the Simpson Desert home. They had established a series of semi-permanent shallow wells which provided water sufficient for the few families. These wells were more like underground tanks formed by depressions in the impervious gypsum layers that were the bottom of old salt lakes. These depressions filled with sand and trapped the water that drained into them, the sand then prevented the evaporation of the water. These wells (“tanks”) were usually quite shallow, not more than two or three metres deep, and the water was accessed by a small sloping tunnel. Of course, a century of not being used has meant that all the tunnels have long since filled with sand and many of the wells are now lost.

These well sites have a number of characteristics that make them recognisable.

These were the the wells used by David Lindsay in 1886 to cross the Simpson from Dalhousie Station to a point just west of Birdsville. He mentions them in his diary but by the early 1900’s the Wangkangurru had moved out of the desert and the location of the “Lindsay” wells was lost. In the 1960’s, interest in the wells revived. Initially a scientific survey failed to find them, then later Dennis Bartel located most of them and showed a number of them to anthropologist, Dr. Luise Hercus, from the Australian National University. The positions of some are well known but the location of the others remains a closely guarded secret. One of the ‘known’ wells has yet to be found while other ‘known’ ones have been lost! Others, as yet unnamed, have been located so that the total number of located wells is somewhere around twelve. This is the story of the Race undertaken to find the Lost Wells, a race convincingly won by Dennis Bartel – to the victor go the spoils.

This is the story of the team that took second place and our approach.

Lindsay set out to cross the Simpson from Dalhousie, by camel, and was guided to the wells by a local man who knew their location. At that time they were still being used by the nomadic Wangkangurru tribe. Lindsay kept a diary, a log of his daily travel. He recorded the direction of travel and estimated the distance on each heading by counting his camel’s steps. He had calculated the number of camel steps per mile and this was his measure of distance. So, in theory with his compass bearings and distances travelled you could recreate his path and find the wells. However it was not to be that easy!

Our expedition had much more sophisticated navigation equipment than Lindsay including a brand-new state of the art Magellan GPS receiver. It had cost us a fortune and consisted of a metal box, about 30 by 30 by 20 cms with a small readout on the front. You erected the aerial, similar to a TV aerial, as high as you could get it, attached aerial cable and power to the receiver, turned it on and then waited. The wait was usually 10 to 15 minutes and then suddenly the readout would give you a line of data which was your position in degrees, minutes and seconds. It was large, heavy and cumbersome but, astoundingly to us, it was accurate to within a few hundred metres! This was at that time a wonderous piece of equipment, a technological marvel, a product of the Cold War and the need to be able land nuclear missiles accurately. The dead reckoning we had used up to then was seldom better than a kilometre. The new GPS would not help us find the wells but would fix their position should we be able to find any.

The next task was to plot the path of Lindsay and the ‘position’ of the wells using his track log. We had his starting point so all that was necessary was to carefully layout his path across the desert. Our first major problem immediately became apparent, Lindsay had used a magnetic compass so that his bearings were magnetic not true. Now magnetic compasses point at the magnetic poles which move slowly around the true poles. The difference between magnetic north and true north is called the magnetic deviation and may be as high as 10 degrees. This would seem no problem, just adjust using the magnetic deviation to get true headings. Unfortunately not only does the magnetic deviation change over time as the magnetic poles wander around, it also differs by geographical area. What was the deviation in the Simpson in 1886?

Today the magnetic deviation has been plotted for the entire globe and is noted on maps but there was no such data for the Simpson in 1886. In fact the first magnetic deviation data available for that area was in the 1930’s. By the 1950’s the data was being updated regularly and was being used to predict future change. What we needed was a way to project this data backwards. The data was not linear but cyclical, so a sophisticated mathematical model was constructed by our resident Time Series expert and the University computer used to ‘forecast’ what the magnetic variation had been in 1886 in the Simpson. This project took several months but was to prove its worth since we now had a means of converting Lindsay’s headings to true bearings. They were still probably only accurate to about one degree but that was a lot better than being potentially 10 degrees out!

In reading his compass, Lindsay would make errors but these would be random errors and would tend to cancel each other out. However, the error remaining in our deviation projection model would be a cumulative error, that is it would keep increasing as we moved down the Lindsay route. To minimise this cumulative error, we needed to start in the middle of Lindsay’s route and work back towards the start and forward to the end. So the next step was to go through the diary around the middle of the journey and find a reference to an existing landmark, a landmark the position of which was known. Lindsay was meticulous in his notes and gave bearings and distances to landmarks – of which there are very few in the desert – so we were able to find one near the midpoint we were seeking. We plotted the theoretical position of the nearest well and all that remained was to find it. Our research and modelling had taken a year, a quick trip to the desert to confirm the location would give us data on what the actual errors were and thus assist in plotting the remaining wells.

This quick search was to extend over the next 5 years!

In the first expedition we took four vehicles. We had laid out a grid search pattern around the theoretical position of the first well and were confident that it would be within the 1 km square grid we had drawn up. The first problem was to get to our starting point driving cross country from the nearest seismic track. Not too far but averaging 4 km/hr and consuming 80 litres/100km in our petrol vehicles was a bit unnerving. However, five days of travel and we were there setting up camp at our start point on the search grid. We were desperately behind time and our searching would be very limited, by both time and fuel. Nevertheless it was a happy camp as we looked forward to starting our search in the morning.

A good meal and we settled around the camp fire as the temperature plunged below zero. The moon was full, and the stars shone untwinklingly as is their way in the clear desert air. I wandered off and walked perhaps 100 metres away from the light of the camp fire breathing in the desert air and gazing at the unblinking starts. I looked down and astonishingly there in front of me was the well! In the bright oblique moonlight the contrasting shadows had picked out the well perfectly. We had camped almost on top of it!

The next day we moved our camp further away and then spent a few days marvelling as we examined the detritus of this old habitation site. We also marvelled at how close our projected position of the well was to the actual although we were not sure whether this was just good luck. Our delays meant that we could spend only a few days at this site and then we must return to the coast and our various employments. The remaining wells would have to wait for the next time, they had after all been waiting patiently for a hundred years.

Winter is really the only practical time to explore in the desert, in addition, duties at the University constrained us to between semester breaks. So the next year was spent refining our projections of Lindsay’s movements and considerably improving our logistics to give us more range and more time in the desert. Vehicles were modified to carry 300 plus litres of fuel, at that time diesel vehicles simply did not have the power to travel cross country. So we were restricted to petrol which did tend to mean that every vehicle was a mobile bomb and fire was our biggest fear.

Spinifex has a habit of accumulating in nooks and crannies underneath the vehicles and in past trips we had already experienced a number of vehicles catching alight. So we needed to modify the undersides so that spinifex was not collected plus work out how to avoid fires and in the last resort how to put them out. As well as fire extinguishers (to be used only as a last resort) each vehicle carried wire hooks, welding gloves, spray bottles of water and cans of beer beside the driver. More or less by trial and error we had discovered that a simple spray bottle was very effective mainly because it cooled the fire area down quickly. With the welding gloves the spinifex, burning or smouldering, could be pulled out. Finally for hard to get areas, a warm beer when opened produced a good squirting froth that you could get up on top of the gear box. Computer modelling did not help much with these plans!

The following winter saw our vehicles much better prepared for open desert driving.

We had exchanged our dipole 100 watt HF radio for a simpler in-car unit. To use our original HF radio we had to set up the aerial, a dipole, with 20 metres of coaxial cable in each arm. Thus to use it we had to find trees or erect poles 40 metres apart and haul the aerial up. The coax to the radio came down from the centre of this arrangement. It actually worked quite well as long as you “aimed” it and we were able to contact Brisbane without too much trouble. Another plus was that, if bored, we could tune it into the “Russian Woodpecker”. It was in the heart of the Cold War and, with typical Russian sledgehammer ingenuity, the Russians had developed an Over-the-Horizon radar, the heart of which were 50 Megawatt pulses transmitted from somewhere in the Ukraine. How they could produce such extraordinary pulses of RF energy nobody knew. What we heard was the very distinct rhythmic clacks called the Russian Woodpecker. The mobile in-car HF gave us access to the phone system via RFDS base stations scattered around the country and was considerably simpler and easier to use than the dipole-ham radio.

We had also done some more work on our maps. This was a period of intense oil exploration in Australia and the entire continent had been systematically mapped using aerial photography. These photographs were in overlapping lines so that you could view the landscape stereographically using what was called a stereoscope. The two images of the same area could then be seen as if in “3D”. It did enable you to get a good feel for the topography of the ground and easily see vegetation, small water courses and other features. We identified the likely position of each well and then got copies of the aerial photos of that area. We could then identify likely spots for the well and add this likely ‘photo position’ to our maps. This was painstaking work but did prove to be of considerable value.

We were ready; better cars, better communications, better maps and better logistics. We were confident of success. We were soon to learn in that second year, that the Desert is a hard task master and does not give up its secrets easily.

We had had rain off and on during the trip out to Birdsville and the Diamantina was well and truly flowing when we arrived. It rained that night and was raining when we set off westward the next day. The wet sand hills were easy to cross and we simply went around the odd puddle, that is until we arrived at Eyre Creek. It was running! We had never even seen water in it before and now it was at least 2 metres deep and flowing hard. We were aware of a crossing of Eyre Creek some 40 km north which had been used in the past, but would it be negotiable? It seemed like an 80 km detour was needed to find out.

The crossing at Ruholtz Bore has a rocky bottom which, in itself, is unusual and Eyre Creek is pushed into a single channel. It was around 80 cms deep and flowing hard but did seem crossable. This we did after waterproofing our petrol vehicles, something we had not prepared for in all our careful planning! The battle was far from over, we were now on the western side of the Creek and followed it south to re-join the main track. Eyre Creek breaks up into channels so that the main track was cut by a number of channels. These channels ran down between the dunes and would appear in a dunal corridor, flow gently down it for some kilometers and then disappear – to pop up in an adjacent dunal corridor! So the scheme was to follow the water north or south until it disappeared, but which was quicker north or south? On each watery obstacle two vehicles would be dispatched, one north and one south. Then the rest of the convoy would go the direction of the first to call in, thus saving a great deal of fuel and time. Finally after a day or so and many bogs (when a vehicle tried to cross the dunal corridor too early) we were through and Eyre Creek was behind us.

The desert was glorious, the top of every sandhill opened up a new blaze of colour. The sand was completely concealed by a riotous carpet of yellow and white daisies. A few were a delicate pink and interspersed amongst them were the odd bluebells and kangaroo paw. The gidgees were also in bloom and, unlike most desert blooms which have little or no scent, the gidgee produces a faint delicate smell somewhat like propane gas. This meant we had many drivers stopping to check for gas leaks from their cookers as we passed through the gidgee groves.

We headed for our first search area. The well we had found the previous year was roughly in the middle of the Lindsay crossing, we called the north easterly section of his track the ‘Second Section’ and the south westerly section the ‘First Section’. We had decided to do the second section of Lindsay’s journey first and leave the more remote first section until next time It soon became very obvious that we would find no wells that year. It was impossible to see the sand so that any evidence of habitation was completely covered, and ground features were obscured by the growth of large numbers of ephemeral plants. We might as well sit back and enjoy the desert garden in which we found ourselves.

But all was not well, it was still raining off and on, and there were a large number of salt lakes between us and Birdsville not to mention Eyre Creek! A quick excursion back to the worse claypan confirmed our fears, our return route was cut off for who knows how long. The only way out would appear to be westward and home via the Alice. Our relaxed search had turned into a fight to get out, and the rain just kept coming!

We struggled on and it was now clear that we did not have enough fuel to make the Alice. A phone call via the RFDS network and our HF radio soon arranged a fuel drop we could pick up in a few days, if we could get out. We camped at Purni Bore and set off the next day to get our fuel from a cattle property south of Dalhousie, we left our camp set up as we intended to return that afternoon. We had seen no one for days so we had no worries about leaving our gear unattended for the day. An easy morning seemed to order and we leisurely organised for our refuelling excursion finally leaving around midday. We were soon struggling; the track was slippery and boggy, and we had frequent stops. The 200 kilometer round trip took us what remained of the day and well into the night. As we pushed in in the pitch darkness our lights picked up a couple of tents and vehicles not too far of the road. They had not been there on our way out so presumably they had driven past our tents and equipment strewn around Purni Bore.

We decided to at least get their registration numbers so the lead vehicle swung off the road to get their number plates in the headlights. The vehicles following did the same so that the two little tents were surrounded and had around 5 kilowatts of spot lights aimed at them. Despite the sounds of our cars and our lights, nothing stirred. All was still, so we turned and left for our camp about 20 kilometers down the road. When we arrived it was clear that our tents were not disturbed, indeed there were no new tracks in from the east, so our mysterious campers had come in from somewhere else. In the morning the mystery was solved when the two cars pulled up. They were actually a small group of young University students doing some fauna research. They had been told when they got permission to come in, that all roads were closed and that no one else was in the Desert. They awoke in the middle of the night petrified by “revving engines and huge spotlights” and truly thought that their days were numbered, and they were experiencing a “close encounter of the third kind”. They were relieved that we were not aliens or serial killers and enjoyed morning tea with us.

We had fuel but it was still raining, and we had to keep moving west to be sure of getting out. We managed to make it to the Alice and hot baths that night, but then it started raining yet again. By mid-morning the rain was increasing and much more was forecast coming in now from the west. All we could do was pack and leave, first we had fled west and now we had to flee east! We got away mid afternoon and after a couple of hours driving the skies were clear so we pulled up to have dinner. By the time we had finished it was raining again, the rain was moving almost as fast as we were. We drove through the night and reached the Queensland border at about 4 am. We had to stop as we were all exhausted and needed sleep. The skies were clear, and we were all asleep in minutes. About 2 hours later it started to rain again, so once more we packed and pushed on, we had no desire to be stuck on a dirt road hundreds of kilometers from the nearest town.

By lunch we were in Boulia, completely exhausted. We simply could not push on, so we booked into the pub and hoped that the rain would not catch us since we still had over 300 kilometres of dirt before the bitumen. By evening it had started to rain gently, rain that increased all night. When we checked the road out had a ‘Road Closed’ sign across it. We went to the Police Station, Boulia was then quite a small town with only a single Senior Constable in charge. We asked about the road and he said that the Council had put the sign up and no one actually knew if it was closed or not. He then found out that there were 20 odd, including women and children, in our group. So we then had a long discussion ‘off the record’. He thought that when the road did flood, as seemed highly likely, it would be impassable for a week or more. The major obstacle would be the Hamilton Channels about 80 kilometres out which would be impassable by tomorrow. The problem was that Boulia could not support us all for a week, or maybe more, since the monthly semi from Longreach had been due that week and now would not be coming for a while. Boulia was going to be tight for food for themselves without an increase of 40% in their population!

The Senior asked us if we thought we could get through, to which we replied yes. All we needed was petrol and then we could manage until we reached Winton and the bitumen. And we carried more recovery gear than most. He then said he was going to see how the road was to the west so would not be around if we drove around the sign and kept going. Which we did. The Hamilton Channels were around ankle deep and rising, the Hamilton Pub (long since gone) had around  10 cms of water in it and the two old biddies who ran the Pub were busy moving things above where they thought the river would rise to. We pushed on. After eight hours of driving across the black soil plains we staggered late in the evening into Winton where we spent the next day removing the mud from over everything. At least the population did not starve in Boulia.

Back to Brisbane and plan for next year, perhaps the Desert would smile on us then.

For the next 5 years we returned time and time again to our task of locating the wells. Some were easy, others very difficult but we did find them all except one, Mudloo Well. Mudloo is shown on some maps and there is even a plaque where the Well is supposed to be. But one thing we are sure about, it is not there. Perhaps we will find it next time we are in the Desert. The Wangkangurru will not mind if they have to wait a few more year.

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