The Last Australian Explorer

(This article was originally published in Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #57.)

Every Australian knows at least a bit about Burke and Wills, and most would have some recollection of names such as Sturt, Leichhardt and Eyre. These explorers set off into territory where no white people had previously ventured. Of course, indigenous people had over some 40,000 to 50,000 years traversed the country comprehensively. But the white men wanted maps. They wanted to know about rivers and vegetation and agricultural potential.

Relatively few Australians have heard of Len Beadell, the “last Australian explorer”. He died in 1995 at the age of 72. His contribution to our nation was substantial.

Gunbarrel Highway sign

Len was born in West Pennant Hills, in Sydney, and grew up living in Eurella St, Burwood – just three kms as the crow flies from where I sit writing this article! He attended Burwood Primary School and then Sydney Grammar. He joined the Boy Scouts, and his scoutmaster, John Richmond – a qualified surveyor – introduced young Len to the joys of camping and surveying.

In 1941, at the age of 18, Len joined the Army, and, because of his knowledge of surveying learnt from John Richmond, was assigned to the Eighth Field Survey Section, and spent time in New Guinea. After the War, the British and Australian governments agreed to establish a rocket range on mainland Australia. Len was appointed to the task of finding an appropriate area, and in due course, a site was chosen about 500 km north of Adelaide – subsequently called “Woomera” – with a flight path for the rockets stretching north-west across the Western Deserts to the Eighty Mile Beach between Broome and Port Headland.

In due course, it became necessary to position instruments along the flight path, and Len supervised the work of constructing tracks through scrub and desert country, leading the way in his Land Rover jeep.

In 1952, Len was told in great secrecy that “it had been decided to detonate an atomic bomb in Australia”. Len found a suitable site 285 km west of Coober Pedy, where there was a large claypan which could be used as a landing strip. The spot became known as Emu, after a “local inhabitant” who had implanted his (or her) footprint on the claypan. More access roads had to be built. Two atom bombs were detonated there in 1953. Later a more remote site was set up at Maralinga (an aboriginal word meaning “thunder”), south of Emu, and seven atom bombs were detonated there in 1956 and 1957.

The need to monitor radiation fallout caused by the bombs, and to collect more meteorological data, gradually made it clear that the road building projects were going to continue for some time. Len pulled together a team which later became known as the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party. Apart from Len and his Land Rover, the Party consisted of a bulldozer and driver, a grader and driver, a supply truck and driver, a general mechanic, a cook, and a “cherry picker” (with Land Rover) whose job was to remove any sticks, roots or stones left after the final grading of a new section of road. Under Len’s guidance, they were responsible for the construction of over 6000 kms of tracks across Australia’s Central and Western Deserts, completed in 1963.

All of Len’s surveying was done without the benefit of modern GPS technology. He calculated his position using a theodolite.

Beadell with theodolite

Len named some of the tracks and junctions after his wife Anne and children Connie Sue, Gary and Jacqui. Some of the longer tracks are:

  • Gunbarrel Highway (Victory Downs Station near Kulgera, NT to Carnegie Station, WA) 1347 kms.
  • Anne Beadell Highway (Coober Pedy to Laverton) 1350 kms.
  • Gary Junction Road (Mt Liebig, west of Alice Springs to Calawalla Station, 100 km north east of Marble Bar in WA) 1350 kms.
  • Connie Sue Highway (Rawlinna on the Transcontinental Railway Line to Warburton, WA) 681 kms.

Most of the tracks are still accessible to adventurous and well-prepared 4WD vehicles.

Beadell was an unusual chap in many ways.

  • He was never known to smoke, drink or swear.
  • He never wore socks.
  • While driving through virgin bush, he routinely had five or six punctures a day, and repaired them as he went.
  • He acted as a dentist when necessary, and was competent at extractions.
  • He enjoyed drawing cartoons, and illustrated his own books.

He wrote seven books about his work, and they are full of fascinating anecdotes. Much of the material in this article has been gleaned from Mark Shephard’s excellent biography of Len entitled “A Lifetime in the Bush” (which contains an excellent map showing all of Len’s roads). These books are available from the Beadell website (www.beadell.com.au). A web site with some good pictures taken on Len Beadell’s tracks can be found at: http://www.dandjribbans.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/in-wheel-ruts-of-len-beadell.html.

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About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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8 Responses to The Last Australian Explorer

  1. sbtanner@bigpond.com says:

    Hi Rob, Will definitely be hanging on to this one for a future issue. Len Beadell is always popular. One of our members is very friendly with his daughter Connie Sue, and they do a lot of travelling in the Outback together. Best regards, Sandra Date: Sun, 6 Mar 2016 03:48:44 +0000 To: sbtanner@bigpond.com

  2. sbtanner@bigpond.com says:

    Forgot to ask. Have you had a look at our club website yet? Sandra Date: Sun, 6 Mar 2016 03:48:44 +0000 To: sbtanner@bigpond.com

  3. shane says:

    Yet another unsung Aussie, funny how we glorify criminals and leave the true heroes go unacknowledged.

  4. Mandy says:

    Len Beadell – one of my favourites. Half an hour before reading this I had the maps out and was dreaming a route over some of his tracks. His books are wonderful and I once heard an audio recording of him and it was hysterical. Good on you for promoting one of our great explorers.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Yes, that recording of his talk (I think it’s called “The Shepparton Talk”) is hilarious, although quite non-PC in spots. I sometimes wonder whether his wife felt she was a bit short-changed, since he seemed to spend a vast amount of time on the job in the Outback.

  5. Lavinia Ross says:

    Len Beadell sounds like quite an interesting, as well as resourceful, individual. Thanks for expanding my own world.

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