The recent death from dehydration of a worker at Ethabuka Reserve in south-west Queensland prompted my friend Kevin Murphy to recall the tragic story of the Page family on the Birdsville Track in 1963.
Kevin was Administration Manager for the team which constructed the “French Line” track across the Simpson Desert in 1963, looking for oil (or any other good stuff for that matter) under the desert sands along the way. Nothing was found. For a mass of information about the construction of the French Line, see Kev’s website: http://www.simpsondesert.fl.net.au
Next year marks 50 years since that epic project was completed. One of the fringe benefits was that it enabled a well-prepared and carefully driven 4WD to cross the Simpson, and crossing the Simpson is still regarded as one of the great Outback journeys in Australia. (Next year also marks nine years since the slightly less epic Inman and Brennan expedition along the French Line, which is documented in Newsletter #11 – see https://www.dropbox.com/s/shgrw5blmm29pcf/BDN11.pdf .)
Back to the story of the Page family. They were English migrants who had settled in Marree, a small town in Outback South Australia at the southern end of the Birdsville Track, where Ernie Page got a job as a mechanic. The Page’s eldest child, Judith, had married and settled in Adelaide. There were three boys, and Robert, the eldest of the three, had got a job as a jackaroo on Clifton Hills Station, 300 km north of Marree on the Birdsville Track.
Ernie had a reputation as someone who “wouldn’t be told”. He had a falling out with his boss, so threw in his job, and decided to move further north – maybe Birdsville, 517 km up the Track. They packed up their 1957 Ford Customline V8 sedan and trailer, and Ernie, his wife Emma, and the two younger boys, Douglas (12) and Gordon (10) left Marree, and headed north on the Birdsville Track just before Christmas, 1963. It was summer, not a good time to be heading out into the desert.
Meanwhile Robert had decided to take a few days leave from his jackarooing, and come down to Marree to be with his family for Christmas. He managed to get a lift on a mail truck. The Cooper Creek was running , and the punt was in operation to take people and vehicles across. Near Ettadunna Station, just a bit south of the Cooper, Robert recognised the family car coming the other way, and after a bit of argy-bargy as to why neither party had advised the other of their travel plans, Robert left the mail truck and joined his family going north.
The punt operator was surprised to see Robert, who’d crossed only a few hours earlier, now heading back the other way. The Pages were advised to call in at Clifton Hills Station, but Robert said there’d be no-one there, because they’d all gone up to Birdsville for Christmas. They were told there’d been rain around the Goyder Lagoon, a bit north of Clifton Hills, and given directions as to how to get to the “Inside Track” to the west of the Lagoon, rather than the normal “Outside Track”.
Several days later, the word got about that some people were missing on the Birdsville Track. Various workers from the just-completed French Line project had been moving vehicles down to the Birdsville Track, and were concerned that their wheel tracks may have mislead the Pages as they sought to find the rarely-used Inside Track.
Eventually the car was found abandoned west of Goyder Lagoon, about 100 km from Birdsville. There was a note inside: “The Page Family of Marree. Ran out of Petrel. Have only sufficient water for two days. December 24.” A problem with the gear box had meant that they could use only second gear, and hence their fuel was depleted rapidly.
A few days later, all five bodies were found about 30 kms away. They had apparently waited at the car for about two days, and then decided to walk.
Just 49 years ago this month.
A plaque erected in 2010 near where they died. (Photo courtesy of K Murphy.)
For more detailed accounts of the tragedy, see http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/ipad/one-wrong-turn-and-their-fate-was-sealed/story-fn3o6wog-1226019019536 and http://www.simpsondesert.fl.net.au/perish .