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Three for the road

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Like footprints on the surface of the moon, our wheels break the fine bull-dust crust of an endless plain – trailing out behind us on the untouched expanse they seem to mark our passage for eternity. Only our speed keeps us from sinking to the rims as we motor towards a distant escarpment. Beneath ragged cliffs that burn fire red in the last rays of winter sun, the plain finally ends in a dry river channel. With a crunch, low gear is found and on straining axles we drop down a steep grade cut into the bank. A set of tyre tracks indicates a course through the sandy bed and with the engine protesting we pull through and begin the scramble up the other side. For a moment we loose momentum, almost sliding back into the sand, then the wheels find purchase and with a jolt we pull up over the bank.

To those who call this rugged Channel Country of far western Queensland home, the 4WD is the vehicle of choice. However we are negotiating the vast expanse of desert and flood channels not in the latest all terrain vehicle but on the wooden wheels of a 1912 Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre (F.N.) motor car, powered by a two wheel drive 16 x 24 horse power, four cylinder, side valve engine. Eighty-four years before us, another F.N. passed this way and we’re retracing its trailblazing journey.

At the wheel in 1913 had been my grandfather, Dundas (Dassie) Gore, a young man eager to take the ‘contraption’ deep into the outback. His uncle, Donald Gunn, a member of the Queensland Parliament, had suggested they take a ‘jaunt’ with his son Walter to explore the route of the planned Great Western Railway. During their outing of six weeks, from Goondiwindi on the Q.L.D. / N.S.W. boarder to Lake Nash in the Northern Territory, they traversed more than 4350 km of Queensland – we believe the first such journey by motor car.

Other than arranging fuel drops by bullock dray, lashing on some spare tires and sending letters of introduction to far-flung properties, Dassie, Donald and Walter made few provisions. The trio took up the challenge with the indomitable spirit of adventure, the easy acceptance of adversity and the casual, bare bones preparation that are intrinsically Australian.”As it was winter”, Donald Gunn wrote later,”we had to take a good supply of blankets, otherwise our wants were few. Three shay quart pots, one dinner knife and a teaspoon were our cooking utensils. On the return trip we brought a frying pan, which was very useful. When we boiled beef we made use of a petrol tin.”

Aside from the logistics of organising an outback expedition and its filming, the major hurdle for our expedition was unravelling the past. Over the years the memory of their adventure had slowly faded with the passing of each generation. The prospect of retracing grandfather’s footsteps inspired a month long search that eventually unearthed Dassie’s journals carefully bound in anonymous brown paper. Written in pencil, in strong flowing script, were the daily entries that revealed the route, the characters and the events, right down to the mileage and gallons of petrol used. His first entry in his No. 45 Australasian Rough Diary on leaving his home town, was simply” Left Goondiwindi 12:30 pm”.

To the crowd of well wishers that assemble for our departure, the F.N. is the centre of attention and seems very much at home parked in the grounds of Goondiwindi’s Customs House museum. Under tumbling bougainvillea and bignonia, the sheds, alcoves and shaded verandas house the treasured keepsakes of almost 150 years of country life. In one corner a display of pioneer saddlery, complete with leather bound ‘quart pots’ and original swag. In another, the icebox, butter churns and clutter of a squatter’s kitchen. On a weatherboard wall above canvassed squatters chairs, are the collected brands of hundred or more properties – an original epitaph to the district’s long departed cattlemen. In the gardens, wooden drays rest alongside intricately sprung sulkies and a grand old steam engine.

In such august company, our venerable old car is in fact a mere spring chicken, a petrol powered interloper infringing on the relics of a bygone world that had been powered by horse, bullock and camel. In the autumn of 1913, when Grandfather’s ‘F.N.’ had rumbled through the streets of Goondiwindi, many of these collected artifacts were already old. Back then; the F.N. would still have drawn a crowd, though as a ‘state of the art’ horseless carriage. Like the increasing number of motorcars making their way further and further into the interior, the F.N. heralded a new mechanised era that was replacing the ‘beast of burden’ as fast as petrol and machine could be delivered.

To rousing words from the formidable Sir William Gunn, Walter’s son, we set out on July 13 ’97 full of corned-beef in damper bread, tea and cheer. In the F.N. was Tim Gore, another of Dassie’s grandsons, as well as Doug Marshal, the proud owner of the F.N. and myself. Strung out behind, in the comfort of new four-wheel-dives, was the support crew, including Hugh Gore, Dassie’s son, family, friends and a camera crew.

The beginning of the journey had been nowhere near as smooth for Dassie and his companions. Out of St George, 200 km N.E. of Goondiwindi, rain came in an unseasonable downpour and for hundreds of miles dust turned to deep impassible mud.”Walking beside car bogged to knees. Absolutely no grip for either wheel.”, wrote Dassie.” Got lever going and Spanish windlass and worked until after lunch in water most of the time. Very bad bog. Out again and a few miles further on bogged in worse place.” For days on end they struggled, running short of food and falling way behind their schedule.

Eventually the trio reached Bollon, 113 km west of St George, a sleepy little community that seems to have improved vastly since 1913. “Bollon, the end of the world, looks as if it was the first place Noah landed at and no one built anything since except a police station and post office. Postmaster blind drunk and oldest inhabitants say never seen him sober. Licked a stamp and missed the letter having left the stamp on his chin”. Instead of attempting the flooded direct route to Charleville, 370 km N.W. of Bollon, the trio headed North for Mitchell and then railed the F.N. West across the sodden country to the town at the ‘end of the line’.

As we rolled into Charleville on July 15 at the head of a procession of every horse drawn and motorised antique from miles around, the school band played jazz under the Corones Hotel’s wide sweep of verandah. Charleville had turned on its famous hospitality to celebrate just a snippet of its expansive history. In the hotel’s marvellous period hall, decorated in a ‘museum’ of artifacts, we were easily transported back to the town of 1913 and chattered with the locals, frosted beers in hand. Outside our F.N. is proving to be something of a ‘time machine’ as people pour over her running gear, unlocking memories and stories of long ago.

Driving out of Charleville the next day, heading west for Adavale 188 km away, we cross an imaginary line that separates the settled areas from the outback. In 1913 that line must have been very real, behind were the grand hotels and the trappings of civilisation, in front the untamed wilderness. Adavale is”out where the crows fly backwards to keep the dust out of their eyes” wrote Dassie, though in 1913 it had three pubs a hospital and about 800 souls. In 1997, the entire population of 11 had a vast BBQ well under way as our convoy arrived. In 1917, four years after Dassie past through, the spur line from Charleville to Quilpie (then Quilpill) was completed and the greater part of Adavale was moved, lock, stock and barrel, one 100 kilometres south. Over the years floods whittled away the remaining few stalwarts, until now only four or five homes, a pub and a serene old hall remain. Between mouthfuls of steak and slugs of bear, the animated conversation was dominated by the town’s fate. “You see that church over there”, says a talkative local pointing south. “Well it got washed from over there”, sweeping a sunburnt arm through 180 degrees to north, “and ended up on a gum tree over there”.

Scattered on its flood plain like the final pieces in a chess game, many of the dwellings are on the brink of collapse, the rusting tin sheets that once held out the rain lie scattered beside the hulks of trucks and jalopies not much younger than our F.N. Forever seeking parts for his veteran cars, Doug scours the wrecks – a passion that continues to take him to the more remote areas of Australia both in the F.N. and by 4WD. At the northern end of town is Adavale’s landmark, the ‘bottle house’. A rambling old tin shack, it is remarkable because of the thousands of beer bottles that are piled around it – each and every one drunk by the owner who, now a teetotaller after ‘getting the sugar’ (Diabetes), lives just across the way.

Dassie made no comment of dingo’s as they headed west towards Cooper Creek but today the dingo fence, the world’s longest man made structure, is impossible to miss as it slices through the scrub – a barbed rampart to the wily dogs and salvation to the countless sheep of the east. With the old road west now a washed out trail, we followed the fence south to Quilpie, leaving the dust for the respite of bitumen that takes us 208 km further West to Cooper Creek. “We got delayed by heavy sand crossing the Cooper at Dead Man’s Channel,” wrote Dassie. The banks of heavy sand are still there stretching away either side of a span of concrete that now whisks motorists across in a few seconds. Here in the Channel Country the rains and their torrent were long gone and the creek was a string of great cool pools.

The Cooper is an ornithologist paradise; the still brown waters are an oasis for the birds of the bush. In the trees, black cockatoos frolic and bicker, in the shallows spoonbills and ibis regally dip for morsels, while further out territorial pelicans jealously protect their domains. High above them all a solitary wedge tail circles on a great spread of expectant wings. To their evening calls we feast on yabbies – a decidedly taster meal than that of our forefathers.”Walter had shot a very large plain turkey with the rifle at about 150 yards. We roasted it before the fire, but found it tough and stringy – anything but tender.” Dassie’s diary tells us.

The trio stopped at the first of the huge Channel Country cattle stations.”Had afternoon tea at Mr Watson’s Currawilla, which is the model place of these parts. There is a nice tidy homestead built of mud and cane thatch all enclosed by a mud bank to keep out the floods. He gave us a splendid piece of corned beef and Mrs Watson supplied bread butter and cake. At Currawilla, the passage of time has done nothing to diminish its great hospitality. Roger and Debbie Oldfield, who now own and run its 2230 square kilometres, provided scones, cake and tea i[1]¾n the comfort of their large country kitchen. The old mud walls and timbers of the original homestead are still there, incorporated into an almost palatial two story villa.

In 1913 it took Mrs Watson eight days coaching to reach the nearest railway. “We can get to Longreach or Charleville in a day if we have to,” said Debbie, “but it’s easier to get everything delivered by truck twice a week”. Despite the relative ease of travel, life out here can still be an isolated one. “This year the flood stayed round the house for the best part of three months”, said Roger. “We had to take a boat to get through to the road.” The annual floods generally don’t cause the homestead much of a problem, though precently Roger bought a jet ski to ensure that, whatever happens next year, he can get around and deal with the cattle.

At Currawilla’s Northern boundary, the Channel Country becomes the preserve of corporate Australia. Fence line to fence line for 600 kilometres and more, companies like A.A. (Australian Agricultural Company) and Glenormiston Pty. Ltd. control some of the largest properties anywhere in the world. Like my grandfather we passed them by; Davenport Downs, Springvale, Roxborough, Headingly and Barkly Downs, names that have been part of our “wild west” since the 19th century.

Amid these cattle kingdoms there is now an island of new parkland that is slowly being returned to its natural state. A generous deal by Janet Homes A Court recently transformed Diamantina Lakes cattle station into the Diamantina National Park. Here in the magnificent Hunter’s Gorge, at the base of flat-topped mesa and amongst crumbling squatter ruins there is rejuvenation. In the channels, burgeoning wild flowers top a 1 metre high carpet of regrowth that now spreads unmolested across a landscape that, under cloven hoofs, had been dusty brown stubble.

Ninety kilometres further down the road is Elizabeth Springs that in my grandfather’s time was a haven. “One spring I got into seemed to suck your leg in, the water and sand looking just like boiling cloths”, the Diary says. Stately brolgas observe us trail over the remains of the springs – small pools of no more than a few centimetres deep are all that remain of the swimming holes Grandfather so enjoyed. Part of a unique string of artisan spring mounds caused by the build up of the mineral deposits in the water, the region’s countless open bores have lowered the water table, decreasing the pressure that forced water up through the outlets at the centre of each mound. Outside the national park’s environs and fenced off only recently, thirsty cattle were permitted to churn the delicate formations to a bog.

The trio motored on to Boulia, 300 km South of Mount Isa, “a three pub town and the best we have seen since leaving Charleville. Back then every hotel had its flock of goats, as did the private houses and the police and the telegraph master. These days it’s not goats but camels that are taking over Boulia – the town’s inaugural camel races were in full swing when we arrived. A crazy three-day carnival that attracts the bush’s most extraordinary characters, both human and humped, to bet, blue, drink and dance. I blow $60 betting on a neurotic and uncontrollable ‘fleabag’ called Gwenelda who, in a race that saw only 7 of the field of 12 actually run towards the finishing post, comes in a grunting, spitting, protesting last.

Light of pocket and heavy of head we head west out of Boulia and do just as my grandfather had done; “Met several mobs of travelling cattle as we were on the main stock route from the northern territory which runs up and down the Georgina River. Apart from a few creature comforts, like a freezer and satellite phone, a drover’s life hasn’t changed much in almost 100 years. For months on end they spend their days in the saddle and their nights rolled up in swags under the stars. According to Bill Little, who, with his crew of four, is running 1973 head exactly, today drovers are reestablishing themselves. For unlike the traumatised animals aboard road trains, the months of walking through watered pasture delivers strong, healthy, happy beasts to the markets. Asking Bill where he is headed he replies, “Down to the Cooper” and mentally I added “where the western drovers go”. In the outback of 1997, this tall rugged ‘overlander’ is a good a Clancy as you’d every hope to find.

Out on the vast treeless plains, the trio encountered a character whose reaction demonstrated what effect their F.N. was having in this remote land. “We met a Chinese man riding one horse and leading a pack horse. The pack horse took flight and wound the halter round the fellow, whipping him of his mount. But he was so taken up with the car that he never took his eyes off us. He jumped up exclaiming “no more wanti horsi”. We caught his horses for him while he stood admiring the car “. All that remains of the large Chinese presence in the outback are the broken limestone weirs that once watered their fertile gardens.

In the outpost of Urandangie, 185 km South West of Mount Isa, the trio pulled in to Guckin’s Hotel. “Mr Guckin keeps no women about the place, minds the bar, washes up, makes the beds, waits at the table, looks after the store etc. etc and dose it all very well to’, Dassie wrote. For more than a 100 km it is the only place to get a drink and now Niels Knudsen carries on Guckin’s tradition, though the pub is now called the ‘Dangie’. With dry Danish whit Niels explained that he came to Australia with his wife Liz to get away from his mother in law. Pulling a sad face he says, “That’s her over there”, indicating Liz’s mother happily perched in a corner. The laid back Niels isn’t easily fazed but what really gets his goat are vehicles getting bogged in the Georgina River. As the one who has to pull them out, he has implemented a policy; “If they stop for a beer or a Coke before they get stuck, I pull ‘em out for nothing. If they drive through without saying g’day I charge ‘em good.”

Thankfully we don’t get stuck. Dassie on the other hand was not so lucky; “Up at daylight to cut away far bank and stuffed some sand near it to make things easier. Put bushes over bad parts and after a couple of hours hard work, had a go at it. Got to middle on loose gravel where car sank. Heavy sand for 100 yards from middle with odd surfaces of baked gravel. Got going with Spanish windlass and though very hard pull car went right out with out a stop.” The diary says.

As we drive into Camooweal, 188 km North West of Mount Isa and only 13 km from the Northern territory border, the turbulence of racing road trains batters our little car and I reflect on one prophetic entry. “A motor lorry would do well here now as it would bring goods much cheeper and better than horse teams from Burketown, or camel teams from Cloncurry. In town my grandfather stopped for supplies and to ‘wire’ home from Synott’s general store. But for the sign above the entrance, Synott’s store remains intact. Here at last is something that fits the record, not a ruin but a wooden structure that has survived.

As Joe Freckleton led us round to the old store, he explains that his father had bought it from Synott before WWII and later constructed a new building beside the old – today’s general store. As a handy warehouse it has endured. Through splintered doors we step into the past. In the dusty gloom forgotten products like Swan Ink, Clever Mary and Botanite are stacked neatly on their shelves. Beside rusted lanterns, perished reins hang from wooden beams above tables scattered with cartridge boxes and docket books. On the floor saddlebags wait in vein. Here, but for the passage of time, we could have been standing beside Dassie, Donald and Walter, touching the same things they touched, treading the same boards they’d trodden. Joe feels sure that his father wouldn’t have missed the first F.N. to come to town.

Eighty kilometres into the Northern territory the trio reached another great property, Avon Downs, before they were forced to begin the journey home. Turning south they drove 150 km to Lake Nash on the Q.L.D / N.T. boarder. On the lake’s grassy banks, we sit captivated by the masses of pelicans coasting across its serene expanse of water and celebrate the end of our family adventure and toast our intrepid ancestors. Though as Dassie, Donald and Walter set up their canvass shelter and then ate their bush turkey and floury ‘Johnny cakes’ they must have done so with a degree of disappointment as Lake Nash was in fact only the half way point of the journey they had originally intended to make. “We did intend to go on to Port Darwin but having lost so much time in the first part of the journey by wet weather could not spare the time. But there is nothing I know of to prevent anyone motoring from Camooweal to Port Darwin,” Dassie noted.

With the world rapidly approaching war, the trio must have seen their journey as rather insignificant, simply an enjoyable jaunt that should have gone further. Today their feat stands as a small but unique episode in the opening up of outback Queensland. With only the bare essentials, they crossed hundreds of kilometres of desert where no vehicle had been before, there were no roads to speak of, no petrol stations and no mechanics though through it all their F.N. never broke down. Within a year of their return Dassie was in Gallipoli. Later he was invalided out to Britain where he joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war in Austria and lived to tell the tale – though, that is another story.