Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Wangkangurru Aboriginal inhabitants of the Simpson Desert


Extract from book Desert Walker by Denis Bartell OAM  2012


(Article below is reproduced with the Author’s permission. Chapter 5 details how the Simpson Desert aboriginal native wells (mikiri), which had lain abandoned for 80 years after the Wankangurru people departed the desert in the year 1900 never to return, were relocated by Denis Bartell in 1980.)


5     In the Footsteps of Lindsay


It was May 1980 and I once again found myself heading northwards for the Simpson Desert. This time my 12-year-old son, Richard, occupied the passenger seat of my brand new diesel Toyota. Although he had visited many parts of the outback already, this would be a totally different experience for him.


I was on a mission that had started a few months earlier, with a call from a contact in the National Parks SA. He was seeking information on my 1977 east-west journey through the Simpson Desert. One thing led to another, and he mentioned a series of lost native wells. In 1886, explorer David Lindsay had used these wells to survive when he penetrated the Simpson Desert. A Government expedition had set out to locate them in 1975, but had failed in their attempt. My questioning must have sounded rather enthusiastic, because next I was being offered Lindsay’s journal, but only on the understanding that I would take up the challenge to find the wells. He didn’t have to ask twice.


David Lindsay was born at Goolwa in South Australia on 20 June 1856 to John and Catherine Lindsay. His father was a Scottish sea captain who had migrated to South Australia from Dundee. At 17 years of age, Lindsay started as a cadet surveyor, and five years later he moved to Port Darwin where he began a long association with the Northern Territory. As a surveyor, he traversed the north, central and western areas of the Australian continent, and in 1885–6, he carried out what he called The Great Central Exploration Expedition from Adelaide to Port Darwin. It was on this journey that he entered the Simpson Desert for the first time.


In 1891, he led the Elder Scientific Expedition from Warrina in South Australia across the Great Victoria Desert to near Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Lindsay had interests in mining, was a share broker, and had accumulated considerable wealth in his heyday. His main financial interests were in Queensland and Western Australia, with a family base in Adelaide, until he moved to Sydney in 1912 and more or less lapsed into obscurity in his declining years. He was in the Northern Territory, selecting suitable cotton-growing land for a large syndicate, when in 1922 he died of a heart attack and was buried in the Gardens Road Cemetery, Darwin.  The World War II bombing raids on the city destroyed the cemetery and his headstone, but his gravesite was finally relocated by his son Donald.  Today a new headstone marks the resting place of this excellent bushman.


After studying Lindsay’s journal in detail, I concluded that I really didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of locating any of the wells that he had used, but I was sure going to give it my best shot. I had only one known feature out in the middle of my Simpson Desert map that I could positively identify from Lindsay’s journal, so that became my starting point. I re-calculated all his compass bearings and plotted his course on my maps as best I could. All his distances between turning points and well locations were measured in camel time (about 3 miles, or 4.8 kilometres, per hour), but with the difficult terrain that he was travelling through, one could only guess at his accuracy over such a long distance.


Before departing Adelaide, I had contacted Dr Luise Hercus of the Australian National University, who had been on the failed Government expedition in 1975. I was informed that a Mick McLean, one of the last survivors of the desert Wangkangurru people, had accompanied them in their search. Dr Hercus had a detailed picture of the culture and mythology of the desert dwellers gained over a period of some twenty years from Mick, his sister Topsy McLean and part-cousin Maudie Naylon.


Even though they had departed the desert at an early age, they still had an immense store of knowledge, and gave Dr Hercus significant information on the well sites, the songs, and how life was conducted on a day-to-day basis. Dr Hercus had everything but the well sites, and if I could locate these and ultimately arrange for an archaeological study, then the picture of Aboriginal occupation in the southern Simpson would be complete. I also learnt from her that the last of the Wangkangurru people had departed the desert in 1899/1900, so with 80 years of erosion and sand drift, there wasn’t going to be much evidence left, if any, of where they dug for water.


Oodnadatta was our last fuel stop before Birdsville, some 1200 km away, and then Richard and I headed northwards for Dalhousie, which now stands as an imposing but crumbling station ruin surrounded by lush green date palms. This was once a watering place for the Afghan camel drivers and their large teams of animals as they made their way north with long-awaited supplies for a growing outback population. It was also a breeding ground for superb horses destined for the Indian Army.


The Dalhousie/Spring Creek area is surrounded by hundreds of square kilometres of arid country. In this oasis, many forms of life live untroubled by the frequent droughts which can last for years. These permanent spring-fed pools vary from cold to hot and teem with life — gobies, catfish, spangled grunters — all swimming in tea-tree shaded overflows lined with reeds.


With the thermometer reading 110ºF in the shade, David Lindsay departed Dalhousie on 4 January 1886 to begin his desert crossing. With him were Mr C Bagot and an Aboriginal named Paddy, from the Murraburt area. They had with them three weeks’ provisions and carried enough containers to hold fifteen gallons of water on their riding camels.


Richard and I spent some time exploring the numerous springs that make up the fascinating Dalhousie area and enjoying a welcome swim in a reed-fringed pool before departing to rejoin Lindsay at his first campsite at Oolarinna waterhole.


The drive down the mighty floodout of the Spring Creek Delta is always impressive, and this time it afforded us fast travel over its relatively smooth, flat surface. This type of soil, however, can easily become impassable once it rains. A big mob of horses converged with our route, paralleled us for a while at full gallop, then cut across our course and disappeared northwards, trailing a plume of dust and leaving us with an unforgettable image of power and grace. Near the floodout’s termination the open plain is dotted with trees and massed in lignum, which is really a tall woody grass. Here we spotted several camels, a large mob of donkeys and an inquisitive plains turkey.


We finally arrived and made camp at Oolarinna waterhole, which is curved around a sand-covered point of a rocky headland. From the top of the headland the view to the east is of lines of rolling dunes unmarked by any protruding feature.


Lindsay’s path now lay past the nearby cone of Old Man Hill, and on to Etilkertinna waterhole, some 12 miles (20 km) distant. When he arrived, he found it to be dry and covered by some 4 feet of sand drift. Lindsay now took up a bearing of 122 degrees and was immediately swallowed up by the desert. For the next 59 miles to the native well, Murraburt, Lindsay altered course some seventeen times. He was being guided by Paddy, who had grown up at Murraburt and knew the area like the back of his hand.


The numerous changes to direction probably came about every time Paddy recognised, from the top of a ridge, a clump of bushes or the features of a dune formation, and altered his course accordingly. Lindsay recorded every stop, the time travelled, the time lost, and every new heading. By using 3 mph, the estimated walking speed of his camels, he calculated the distance travelled. When they finally arrived at the well, they were disappointed, as they had expected to find a large supply of water.


Lindsay writes in his journal: ‘The well is first twelve feet deep perpendicular, and then eight feet slope, so small at the entrance that I had to take off my clothes before I was able to go to the water’.


Even though the water was very dirty, they didn’t miss the opportunity to fill up their water containers and give their camels a bucketful each. Six more changes to direction, and some 14 miles later, they finally arrived at the next well site, called Beelpa. Here they found that the well had fallen in, and had to remove about 3 feet of earth before they could reach the limited supply of fresh water. The well was 8 feet deep.


It was at Beelpa that I hoped to rejoin Lindsay’s track once again. The reason that I had chosen this well as the first to search for was simply because I had a few more clues from Lindsay’s journal as to its surrounds than I had for Murraburt. Every time Lindsay had altered course, if his estimated distance travelled was incorrect or varied, each error would compound significantly on the other. Over seventeen compass shots, I didn’t fancy my chances. I didn’t as yet know Lindsay’s worth. I had to give myself the best chance possible, and if I could locate Beelpa, I would return and run the shorter back bearing to Murraburt at another time. After all, I really didn’t know what I was looking for, and even if I was fortunate to stumble on top of a well, would it still be recognisable as such after all this time? I was absolutely certain that any holes dug by the Aboriginals would be now well and truly filled up and covered over by the sand.


I intended to use a series of connecting tracks to take me well into the desert and position me as close as possible to Beelpa. The tracks I would follow were cut by the oil exploration companies, and allowed quick access into the desert. Very few of them are maintained, and a lot that were cut have since faded almost beyond recognition. Most are dead ends.


From our camp at Oolarinna waterhole, I detoured to show Richard an Aboriginal rock placement site on the top of a small hill. Rock placements are arrangements of rocks to form a pattern or series of patterns on the ground. This ceremonial area was quite extensive and intricate in design. I explained to Richard as best I could its significance to the Aboriginals who once lived in this area and he was intrigued. The site was perched on the leading edge of a line of stark, incredibly beautiful, disjointed hills with ridges and flat tops running north and south. They stood in my mind like a protective barrier repelling the rolling thrust of the sand invader coming in from the east.


As Richard wandered, immersed in thought, along pathways that had carried the feet of past beings over thousands of years on their journeys through life, I sat on a large upturned rock, which possibly represented someone’s birth stone. I tried to let my feelings become one with the shadowy figures my mind had created to perform their ritual in front of me. With the mighty Simpson Desert hung like a backdrop to their ceremonial stage, it didn’t take much imagination to understand how this setting could generate deep spiritual feelings.


Next we recrossed the Spring Creek floodout, finally arriving at the very first sandhill of the Simpson Desert. We made a quick stop – not because it is impressive, mind you, it is only a few metres high. It’s a bit of a ritual I have: sort of like saying ‘Okay desert, I’m back again. Now let’s not get carried away and make things too difficult — agreed?’


That night we camped at Purni Bore, the last permanent water supply before Birdsville, and enjoyed a bath in the reed-encircled hot water pool. Richard had started wheezing badly, which I thought must have been due to dust or pollen. The hot water seemed to ease his symptoms, although he remained very restless throughout the night.


Purni bore was put down by the French Petroleum Company in 1963. They were looking for oil, but instead got lots of water, which flowed at about 2.5 million litres per day with a temperature in excess of 80 degrees centigrade at the bore head. Despite the warning sign clearly displayed, I know of two people who had burnt themselves badly walking on the crust near the outlet. One was air-lifted out and the other wore his socks, which were stuck to his skin, all the way across the desert to Birdsville!


This free-flowing bore had created a wetland habitat for a variety of plants, birds, and animals. Other than the lack of firewood, it was a great spot to camp and spend time in observation, particularly early morning when the birds wheeled in just above dune height for their first drink of the day. We enjoyed it, but didn’t linger; we topped up our water containers and were away early. For the next few hours we would have comfortable driving following a series of tracks to the east.


It would be easy to call the desert tamed, as you trundle across it in your four-wheel drive with the mechanical arrogance of our age, secure in the knowledge of good preparation, excellent maps, radio and a thousand comforts. But it can bite.


The parallel sand ridges of the Simpson Desert run in almost unbroken lines, forking as they thrust southwards. On the western edge of the desert, the dunes are closer together, smaller, and have a liberal sprinkling of wattles, grevilleas and other stunted growth. Eastward, the interdunal flats are wider and the dunes can grow to massive proportions. Spinifex, the curse of all early explorers, abounds, with cane grass high up on the ridges holding the dunes together. In the south-east portion, associated with the great salt lakes, are the large grass plains where Aboriginal people used to collect seeds. These are dotted with occasional dense stands of gidgee and corkwood. The Todd, Hale, Illogwa, Plenty and Hay Rivers to the north – normally dry, but sometimes raging torrents – slash into the desert, fighting their way southwards to finally die in the sands.

To the south is Lake Eyre, a vast, usually dry salt lake, remnant of a wetter period of Australia’s geological history. Periodically though, the big rivers rage — the Cooper, Diamantina, Eyre Creek, Macumba, and the Neals – and they fill this basin, which becomes a haven for birds who flock here in their thousands to breed.


The average rainfall is 100 mm and the temperature can range from freezing at night to a mind-bending high during the day that saps the body of strength and drains it of fluids in a matter of hours. In a big wet it is a garden land bursting with energy, the time-locked seeds madly racing to grow, mature and propagate. Rabbits will again intrude and multiply on the rich abundance of feed, only to fade to near extinction when the vegetation dies.


Finally, Richard and I swung down a long interdunal corridor where I hoped to intersect Lindsay’s track on the last stages of his journey into Beelpa. I had wanted to get myself on course this day, but the fading light beat me and we were forced to make camp.


Firewood was scarce again, and the night was chilled by a southern wind. We soon had company: several dingoes patrolled the perimeter of our campsite, and the biggest spider that I had ever seen wandered in for a look. I took Richard for a walk along the dune top to watch the night life – an astonishing range of creatures all busily engaged in their pursuit of survival – and the torchlight soon picked up a beautiful little gecko. We didn’t stay out long, however, as Richard’s attack of asthma, allergy or whatever, which had persisted throughout the day, now increased in intensity, perhaps due to the cold night air. Listening to his laboured breathing I was becoming concerned. This was not a good experience to be having in the middle of the Simpson Desert.


Before we left Adelaide, his mother, who had enthusiastically encouraged this trip, said to me: ‘Just make sure you take good care of our son and don’t let him get into any trouble or lose him! You haven’t spent a lot of time with Richard over the years, so this is a good opportunity to make up and do a bit of quality bonding. It will also do you the world of good.’ Hell, I wished Rotha was here to take over as always when any of us were sick. This bonding is scary stuff when you feel so under-qualified.


Richard finally dozed off and I sat around the fire for a while pondering our chances of finding any sign of the native wells David Lindsay had used. I had done the best I could in the interpretation of his journal. I was extremely confident in my bush experience, but realistically, it was such a long time ago. What could possibly have survived some 80 years in the shifting desert sands?


The dingoes moved to the furthest reach of the fire’s glow and then settled down to watch and wait. Once I went to bed they would come in and silently pad through our campsite looking for food scraps or just a chewable smelly boot. These wild dogs will come incredibly close to your face – only inches away – while you sleep in your swag. If some travellers realised this they would be terrified. I know, for out of habit I always check my campsite in the morning for night tracks in the sand; I am often amazed at their nerve.


At dawn, while Richard broke camp, I walked to the top of a high sandhill, and from my vantage point I soon had what I considered to be an accurate fix on my position. I was sure we had come too far south. We finished our packing and then I drove a short distance to enable me to position the vehicle on the dotted line that I had marked on my map. Lindsay’s visual description of the area seemed to fit.


David Lindsay recorded in his journal:

This well is in a depression with limestone and acacia bushes — very salty looking country — eight feet deep — the sand had fallen in and after taking out three feet of earth came to fresh water, but the salt water was running in too fast for us to cope with so after lunch, we went on towards Balcoora which our boy assured us was a good well — good country — no spinifex — good flats — fine bushes — low ridges.


I ran Lindsay’s compass bearing of 120 degrees for 1.6 km, which brought us to the southern end of several small sand dunes, around which were clearly visible the signs of past Aboriginal habitation, mainly in the form of stone chips. After a short run of 0.6 km on 140 degrees, I then stopped the vehicle. This should be it.


About forty metres away was a small depression, and on close inspection, I noticed that the ground in the middle had subsided slightly. It was the sort of feature that one would normally drive on past without a second glance, but I was looking for something unusual, and it seemed to fit the bill. With what little I had to go on, plus my own observations, I was fairly confident that we had located the native well, Beelpa. Just in case, we searched on foot an extremely large area in a circle around our position, but nothing else even remotely resembling a well site was found.


Richard and I departed Beelpa and with the salt pan, Norpa, bearing to the south we headed cross-country towards the next native well, Balcoora. From now on I would be trying to stick religiously to the course followed by David Lindsay. We hadn’t travelled far before I decided I’d have an early lunch and take a break as Richard, who had helped enthusiastically during our search, was now wheezing badly.


 ‘Are you alright, son?’ I asked, although I knew what he would say.


‘I’m fine Dad. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay,’ he gasped.


Richard was one of those great kids that any father would be proud to have as a son. He was never one to complain, but listening to him, I knew he was far from okay. My dilemma was what to do about it. I estimated that we could finish our search and reach Birdsville in about four to five days. Should I push on, or get out now and perhaps never come back? I made the decision to wait one more day, then, if there was no improvement in Richard’s breathing, I would make a hasty exit. Birdsville was less than one day away if I put my foot to the floor.


Now I didn’t know anything about asthma, if that’s what it was, but I thought I could remember Rotha saying something about how attacks could be triggered by emotional issues or stress, particularly in adolescents, and this got me thinking. Looking back over the past few days, some of Richard’s questions now led me to think that he might be concerned about our whereabouts and safety, particularly now, when we were only just into the first major cross-country stage of our journey.


 ‘Dad, you know where we are, don’t you? We won’t get lost, will we?’


The way ahead was represented only by a thin pencil line on my map marking our intended route over a sea of parallel sand dunes, which must have appeared never-ending to Richard. I tried to put myself in his shoes and came to the conclusion that my worst fear would be if my father died. How would I cope out in the middle of nowhere by myself? I figured it would be pretty frightening so I decided to start immediately with some training that might boost his confidence.


‘Okay son, I could do with your help, mate, so I think the time has come to teach you how to navigate and communicate.’


I pulled out the maps and showed him the dot that represented the previous night’s campsite. I then worked out its position in latitude and longitude and wrote that down beside it. This, along with tripping the mileage to zero, would be my job every night and would represent Richard’s starting point for the next day. His job from now on was to be in charge of the maps, which were all marked with the route we intended following to each native well, and also the distances between Lindsay’s numerous turning points. The compass bearings that we would use on each leg were also highlighted. Each time we reached a turning point, Richard was to note the time on the map, the distance travelled and then advise me the bearing to take and how far to the next point.


My next move was to get Richard to master the HF radio. He unpacked the transceiver, set up the aerial, lifted the vehicle’s bonnet and coupled the power leads to the spare battery. Then he switched on the set and tuned it to the Alice Springs Flying Doctor Service from the series of instructions I compiled.


After writing down the position of last night’s camp and listing in order all our changes of direction and distance travelled so far for the day, he made his first pretend call.


‘VJD Alice Springs, this is Five Sierra Bravo X-Ray. Do you copy?’


I took over the Flying Doctor role: ‘Five Sierra Bravo X-Ray, this is VJD. Go ahead’.


Richard responded, ‘This is Five Sierra Bravo X-Ray. My name is Richard Bartell and I’m out in the middle of the Simpson Desert. I am 12 years old. My father is very sick and I need help.’


Richard then relayed all the information he had written down, which would be more than sufficient for an aircraft to easily locate our vehicle. He finally wheezed his way through the whole exercise and after another practice run, I gave him one hundred per cent.


We spent the rest of the day traversing magnificent plains, which were used by the Aboriginal People long ago for the collection of seed, and climbing moderately high sand hills. Occasionally we caught glimpses of the large white salt lakes which abound to the south of this area.


At the completion of Lindsay’s last bearing into Balcoora, we could find nothing in the near vicinity. Lindsay wrote: ‘The well is 20 ft deep and sloping — some large native mia-mias are here — after leaving Balcoora we met a tree which grows about 10/12 ft high — nine inches in diameter with a very rough thick cork-like bark’. Lindsay filled their water containers, and gave the camels three gallons each.


I re-checked my maps, and also Lindsay’s bearings to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake. Everything seemed in order, and it wasn’t until I re-read his journal that I could see the possibility for an error on Lindsay’s part. He had met five of the local natives who then travelled with them. They said that the water was only a little way away and I think that, believing that they were nearly there, Lindsay may have become slightly sloppy in his recordings. Either that or I was off course.


Lindsay didn’t make it that night, and he had one further correction to course before they arrived early the following morning. I drew a large square on my map, and then proceeded meticulously to comb the area. Several hours later, I considered that I had finally located Balcoora. Signs of Aboriginal habitation lay scattered around, and nearby, the corkwood trees mentioned by Lindsay were evident, one of which I blazed as a future marker.


Continuing from Balcoora, I detoured slightly to show Richard a large eagle’s nest, when I spotted two ears outlined above its rim: it was a large feral cat, which I dispatched forthwith. This day we also saw a large mob of camels – a magnificent sight as they plodded in single file along the top of a dune.


Lindsay wrote: ‘The well, Beelaka, is 10 chains south of a clump of dark corkwood trees which are visible for miles’. From my vantage point on the high dune, I glimpsed a dark clump of corkwood in the distance, and on running his last compass shot for 3 kilometres, I arrived right on target. There was now, with the experience I had so far gained, no doubt in my mind that I had located Beelaka native well and the birthplace of Mick McLean, the last survivor of the Wangkangurru tribe. For added confirmation, many skeletons lay exposed on the shifting sands of a nearby dune.


Again, as a future marker, I blazed a nearby corkwood tree. I hadn’t thought of carrying steel pegs and tags to mark any sites found, however, this was a more unobtrusive, natural, and environmentally friendly way. At that time I didn’t visualize the extensive involvement I would ultimately have with the Simpson Desert, and thinking that I might never return, my marked trees would ultimately act as confirmation if I ever tried to direct others to the sites I had located.


From a particular, unmistakable feature that had been given to me by a member of the 1975 Government Expedition, I now knew that they had also camped near here during their search, without knowing how close they were. Mick McLean was no more than 800 metres from his birthplace, but had said nothing to them. Although he was sick and had failing eyesight, I have a strange feeling that he knew precisely where he was. Irrespective, Mick had indeed returned, knowingly or unknowingly, for one last look at his birthplace, and had reconnected with his desert spirit. Beelaka was a major habitation site with a good supply of water, which Lindsay records as 12 ft deep, and after they had cleaned it out, they took 27 gallons.


We had expended a lot of physical effort walking around this site, and by the time we had finished, I noticed Richard’s breathing was almost as measured and normal as mine. There was very little sign of wheezing so it was with confidence now, and tremendous relief, that I headed for Wolporican, and hopefully my first real link with Lindsay, who had written:

The well is under a sandhill on west side of the plain, and there are some prickly cork trees near, on one of which, 10 chains west of the well, I cut my initials DL and nailed up a tin plate on which is stamped D. Lindsay 1886.


We found the site easily enough, and while I searched around the well area, I sent Richard off to the west to look for the tree. I located a bit of rusted metal from some type of container, but I couldn’t say if it belonged to David Lindsay. It could easily have been traded into the area by the Aboriginals. Anyhow, there was no way of knowing for sure. While I was examining this, Richard’s excited yelling left me in no doubt of his success.


‘Dad, Dad! I’ve got it! I’ve found Lindsay’s marked tree. Come quickly!’


I hurried over to him. There it was, just as Lindsay described, a big old corkwood with the blaze standing out quite clearly. Not only was I excited about finding this direct link to Lindsay, but it confirmed beyond all doubt that the other sites we’d visited so far were genuine. I ran my metal detector over the surface of the tree and it indicated the presence of metal just above the top of the blaze. The tin plate nailed up by Lindsay had disappeared, but the rust from the nail was evidently still embedded in the wood. I had no need to blaze a tree at this site: we had Lindsay’s blaze!


Reaching my next target, Boolaburtinna, was very slow. On course, I passed Lake Warrabulla, and then the area where Lindsay records, ‘The blacks came down from the north, and here slaughtered a great number of the local natives. This was a long time ago’. Reaching Boolaburtinna, once 17 feet deep, it showed the usual signs of past Aboriginal occupation, and after photographing, recording and then marking a tree, Richard and I continued to Perlanna, where I was able to confirm by compass its exact location.


Lindsay’s journal reads:

Perlanna Red Point sandhill west side of plain bears 305 degrees about one mile. White Point sandhill east side 345 degrees. Well 22 ft deep. The cleanest cut well we have seen; splendid water. Marked a gidgee tree and nailed up a tin plate.

A search of the area soon produced a fine old gidgee blazed DL’. The tin plate was again missing, but this time, there was no evidence of nails remaining in the trunk.


Around the area, there were numerous signs of past Aboriginal occupation, and we found the structures of several mia-mias (shelters) still standing. Just to the north, on a blown-out area, lay scattered many artifacts, including a greenstone axe head, stone chips, shell pieces and animal and human bones. Lindsay’s journal only mentions blazing two trees, and I found myself persistently dwelling on the reason why – probably through disappointment that there were no more to search for. I had been enjoying the chase.


While standing next to his tree I wondered if perhaps he had lost his chisel, or the Aboriginal People had nicked it. For the rest of the afternoon these questions rattled around in my brain, almost as though they were begging an answer. But how could there be one?


Perlanna was a major Aboriginal site set in a broad valley massed with gidgee. That night the sky was overcast, and the gidgee, which emits a strong, distinctive odour whenever rain threatens, performed to perfection. We had a great camp in this beautiful spot, and thankfully Richard showed no sign of distress. His breathing was even and he was thoroughly enjoying the adventure.


In the midst of some very rough country lies Kilpatha, the last of the native wells visited by Lindsay. Augustus Poeppel and Larry Wells had also taken water from this site when, in 1884, they had surveyed the western boundary of Queensland north of Poeppel Corner. Kilpatha, along with Yelkerrie and Mudloo wells, had provided much-needed water for camels and men as they pushed northwards through the desert, marking the Queensland–Northern Territory border with mile pegs. I was disappointed to find that it had been found and opened up with a bulldozer by an oil exploration company, destroying it.


When Lindsay reached Kilpatha in 1886, he was met by some forty natives who were rather astonished to see him coming in from the west. He records the well as ‘twenty feet deep with a good supply and numerous mia-mias’.


Lindsay had then intended travelling on to Yelkerrie native well on the other side of the Queensland border. Yelkerrie is named after a plant which grows in the interdunal flats, the bulbs of which were harvested, roasted and then eaten by the Aboriginals. Lindsay’s interest in the area, though, was that he believed there were white men there. When he was informed that this was not the case, he continued only to the Province boundary which he states was ‘well pegged and very clearly defined’. Lindsay then turned, and more or less retraced his steps back to Dalhousie, but it wasn’t a pleasant journey. Mr Bagot had taken ill, and by the time they reached the Finke River, they only had half a gallon of water left between them, and had not eaten for some three days. When they arrived at Etilkertinna waterhole only a few miles away, they obtained a good drink and were glad to eat some of the cooked rats that were offered by the natives camped there.


Now that I knew Lindsay’s worth, I would have been happy to have had him as a companion on any desert journey.


After one final, abortive attempt to again penetrate the Simpson Desert, Lindsay went northwards, ultimately reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria near Borroloola and completing some 6500 km of exploration. Had Lindsay continued from the Queensland border for about three more days, he would have become the first white man to cross the Simpson Desert, some fifty years before Ted Colson. I think he felt, however, that the land east of the border was known country, having been crossed by Poeppel and Wells, and therefore didn’t consider it worthwhile to proceed any further.


Richard and I left Kilpatha and worked our way down to Poeppel Corner. From there we turned eastward along the old French Track, and when it terminated, we continued along an ill-defined two-wheel track to reach the Eyre Creek and finally Birdsville. It was the end of a most rewarding desert crossing, and would certainly leave Richard and me with many memories. We had relocated, some 80 years after they had been abandoned, a total of six Aboriginal well sites, or mikiri, and had found and photographed the two trees that had been blazed by Lindsay in 1886.


Before I set off east of Birdsville to search the sandhills near Wantata waterhole for any sign of the lost explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt (1847), I managed to organise a flight to Adelaide for Richard. Trust him: as they taxied past, there was my best mate, as perky as can be, sitting up front in the co-pilot’s seat. With Richard now back to full form I knew that the pilot was in for an interesting time. I felt sure that by journey’s end he would know more about the Simpson Desert than he would have ever thought possible. He would also have been asked to explain every item in the cockpit and it wouldn’t have surprised me if Richard got involved in the navigation. Richard’s departure was an emotional moment for me. We sure as hell had bonded and I was thrilled to hear later that he had told his mother, ‘I got to know my dad’.


When I finally returned to Adelaide, I contacted the National Parks with a view to seeing how the sites and trees could be best protected, and to try to work out if we could arrange for an archaeological assessment of the native wells. The lady to whom I was directed was quite happy to take all my notes and maps, thank you very much, but I had a sneaking feeling that if I handed them over, that would be the last I’d hear of it, and certainly the last of my involvement. While I was deliberating, she asked me if I could point out on the map which lay open on the desk, the site of Lindsay’s tree at Wolporican. I drew a circle on the map with my finger which probably covered an area of some ten kilometres in diameter, to which she responded ‘Oh well, that will be easy to find’.


I thought, ‘You don’t really have any idea what you are talking about, and if it is that easy, then you can go out and find it yourself’. With that, I picked up my papers and walked out without another word.




The following year, 1981, I decided to cross the desert once more while on my way to the Kimberley region to go gold fossicking. First I revisited Perlanna, where once again, standing next to Lindsay’s tree, I felt a strong curiosity about his chisel, and found myself repeating the questions that I had asked before: had he lost his chisel, or had the Aboriginal People nicked it? It became like a monotonous chant that was hard to get out of my mind.


I had really only come back to the desert to re-photograph Lindsay’s other blazed tree at Wolporican, because the photo that I had previously taken was of such poor quality. When I arrived at the site, I drove straight to where I remembered the tree to be, but it had disappeared. Some limbs and part of a tree trunk protruding out of the sand caught my attention, and when I dug the sand away I could feel the blaze underneath. We had nearly lost this connection with Lindsay.


I immediately contacted National Parks by radio to see if they would like the tree removed so that it could be preserved as part of history, and ended up wasting a full day while I waited for their reply. They considered that relics should remain on site. I cut the limbs off, dragged the heavy trunk to a nearby corkwood tree which I then blazed as a marker, cleared the area of all rubbish and tied a message to Lindsay’s tree stating its importance. Its life now was limited to say the least – rot or fire would see to that. Great thinking National Parks! I renamed the site Stupidity Well!


When I reached Beelaka native well, I used some aluminium drilling rods specially acquired for this occasion to drill a hole where I thought the well site would have been. At just over 3.5 m, or 12 ft – in line with Lindsay’s records – I struck water, and drew up a small quantity to sample using a bailer on a string. It was all rather exciting. In my opinion, based on the material extracted, the water probably lies on a depression of impermeable clay, which, over thousands of years, has been covered by sand. If I am correct, then the supply, while adequate for the needs of a small group of people on an indefinite basis, would soon be exhausted by modern pumping methods.


After another great desert trip, I arrived in Alice Springs, where I phoned Miss Ruth Lindsay, one of David Lindsay’s descendents, and told her what had happened regarding the tree that he had blazed and how I had had to leave it in the desert to rot.


Some months later, now with a pocket full of gold, I arrived back in Alice Springs to find a letter from the Director General, Department of Environment and Planning, waiting for me. It read, in part,

‘I wish to advise that approval has been given for you to remove David Lindsay’s tree from the Simpson Desert and bring it to Adelaide. This approval is subject to your placing the tree in a Museum which meets the approval of the History Trust of South Australia, and that no Government funding will be made available for the venture. I have provided Miss R. Lindsay with a copy of this letter’.

Rather interesting, as I had never asked for financial help from anyone.


When I rang Adelaide, my wife told me that Ruth Lindsay had apparently driven everyone mad, from the State Premier down, with her persistent requests to save the tree. I understand that it was with the help of the Ombudsman that she finally won the day. Knowing Ruth, I don’t think that I would have wanted to be in her line of fire once she got her dander up. She was a real terror. This was rapidly becoming a very expensive lump of wood. I drove home via the Simpson Desert, collecting Lindsay’s tree on the way, and delivered it to the Art Gallery of South Australia, where it was to be fumigated and then stored for the History Trust.


I had previously advised Dr Hercus of my success in locating six of the well sites, and that I considered I could find a further two without much trouble. Dr Hercus urgently wanted to visit the native wells to enable her to round off her extensive study of the Wangkangurru people, and was excited at the prospect of visiting them if I could arrange it.


For myself, I wanted to see the sites assessed by an archaeologist before others, particularly four-wheel drive clubs or tourist groups, found them and destroyed or removed anything from these pristine locations. Having located them, I now felt a sense of responsibility to the desert’s past inhabitants to see that the story of their life was fully told.


I could finance myself and supply my own vehicle, but I really needed a fuel sponsor and several more four-wheel drives to carry personnel. It didn’t take me very long to organise. With the inducement of an exclusive story (native well site locations to be suitably disguised), I found a magazine willing to supply two vehicles and fuel. Dr Hercus arranged for an archaeologist to accompany us, and in May 1983 I found myself once again back in the Simpson Desert.


We visited all the sites and I drilled and obtained water from several. With the knowledge that I had acquired previously, it was relatively easy for me to locate for the expedition the two extra wells that had also been used by Lindsay: Murraburt and Pudlowinna. This made a total of eight sites, not including Kilpatha, which as previously stated, had already been found and destroyed by an oil company.


When we arrived at Perlanna native well, we all parked next to the gidgee tree that Lindsay had blazed. I remarked to the group that it didn’t look as healthy to me as it did when I had first located it some three years earlier. While staring at this monument to the past, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of intense sadness. It was like it was saying to me, ‘Denis, I am very old and I have waited a long time for you to arrive. Now that you’ve found me, it is time for me to move on. My job is done’. This damned tree seems to affect me every time I come near it.


I sent the team off to explore an extensive wind-eroded section to the north which was full of numerous artifacts, including exposed bone fragments, human and otherwise. I knew there was enough material there to keep them busy for some time and as always, I eagerly awaited their expert interpretation and summary to add to my expanding knowledge of Aboriginal desert inhabitation.


No sooner had they departed than the familiar, monotonous internal sing-song popped into my head once more: had he (Lindsay) lost his chisel, or had the Aboriginal People nicked it? My brain kept repeating it over and over like a stuck record. It was more forceful than at any other time.


For something to do, I unpacked my metal detector, deciding that I could fill in time while they were away, and in any case I needed a bit of practice for my next gold fossicking venture. With my head down, I took off walking more or less in a straight line without any pre-conceived point of direction, swinging and tuning my detector as I went. At about 100 paces, I looked up, and slightly to the left of my line of travel, I spotted some sticks poking out of the ground, which appeared to be the remnants of an Aboriginal mia-mia or wiltja (shelter).


I altered course and headed in that direction and, just as I thought, it was the framework of an old wiltja that had stood uninhabited for some 80 years. Just in front of the wiltja my detector indicated metal. I scraped the sand away with my boot, and uncovered charcoal, the remains of a fire. Passing the detector head over the charcoal, it again indicated metal, but this time my boot rolled an elongated object out of the ashes. To my utter amazement, it was a rusty old chisel.


Of all the places in the desert that I could have played with my detector, and even the direction I chose to walk from my vehicle, why here at this site and near this very tree that seemed to continually prompt questions of me that one would think could never be answered?


Now I don’t say for one minute that what I had found was David Lindsay’s chisel, because I don’t even know if he indeed lost a chisel. The one I found could easily have been traded into the area from a long way away — but why a chisel, and not some other product of white civilisation? Why the same chant in my head over many years every time I was in this vicinity? Why me? There are many things in life that we don’t understand, and to me, an incident like this encourages one to keep an open mind.


Of one thing I am sure — the last person to hold that chisel was an Aboriginal. I had located it near the very top of the ashes, and wood that had formed part of the handle had not been entirely burnt away. This chisel was thrown into the last fire ever in front of that wiltja and I would bet it occurred the day they abandoned their home and walked out of the desert never to return. That rusty old chisel now has pride of place in my home.


I had accepted the challenge handed to me and found eight of the native wells that David Lindsay had used. There was one other that he had mentioned, giving only a rough bearing as to its location, but which he never visited. Lindsay records it as Burraburrinna (Parra-parranaha) which means ‘the long one’, and it was one of the deepest wells. It was a ‘men’s only’ site — no women allowed — and of major significance. I finally located this site in 1984 and to mark the spot, blazed a tree. This time however, I never mentioned my find and its location to anyone, deciding that this special area should rest in peace forever.


In 1986, Mr Colin Harris from the South Australian Department of Environment and Planning contacted me to see if I would be interested in leading a Government expedition over the Simpson Desert to visit all the well sites I had found. Due to mining exploration activity and the increase in tourist numbers in the desert, they wanted to see first-hand how best to protect these sites and the area in general. We had an interesting journey. One of the highlights for us all was when I drilled and located water at several of the sites. At their request, I had acquired from my farm three steel fence droppers, which they ceremoniously positioned over the actual site where David Lindsay’s blazed tree at Wolporican had once stood.


When Lindsay blazed his two trees in 1886, they would already have been sizeable and of some vintage; when I found them both some 94 years later they were near the end of their lives. The corkwood at Wolporican would be dead and lying on the ground half-buried in the sand within a year. Three years later, the gidgee at Perlanna was distinctly ‘off-colour’ and when I visited again in the early nineties, it was leafless and, I believe, dead. I find it strange that two different types of trees that obviously enjoyed a long life decided to turn up their toes within a few years of my finding them.


Looking back on my initial journey of discovery in 1980, I feel that it was so easy for me, it was almost as though I was guided. I suppose I believe in some way that I had been chosen to unravel the mystery of the sites so that the wells, and the artifacts in their vicinity, would enable the professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the desert Aboriginal culture. I had played my part, and mythology and well sites were now unified.




It is not my intention to cover in detail the archaeological findings of these expeditions or the Aboriginal mythology, as Dr Hercus has adequately documented these in her many publications since then. But in summary, the Wangkangurru people moved freely through the southern Simpson Desert, their water supply guaranteed by a series of mikiri or native wells, which stretched almost from one side to the other. They had a diverse supply of food available, including rat-kangaroos, hare-wallabies, bilbies, mice, dingoes, snakes, lizards, birds and grass and munyeroo seed. Unlike the areas surrounding the desert where white man’s intrusion drastically altered, and even wiped out, whole sections of Aboriginal life as pastoralists took over their tribal lands, here in this inhospitable wasteland of rolling dunes, the Wangkangurru were safe and secure.


They were not forcibly driven from the desert. They left in about the year 1900 of their own volition, never to return. In so doing, they abandoned forever their spiritual connections, their heritage and their homeland. Imatuwa, Mick McLean’s uncle, gathered together and led the last of his people from a region that their ancestors had possibly occupied for thousands of years. Was it the lure of an easy food and water supply from the stations and missions that tempted them? We will never know. However, one thing is for sure, the Wangkangurru people were finally on the march away from a stone age civilization, just as my ancestors had done, and into a new and unfamiliar way of life that would be full of challenges.


A culture had vanished like so many others before them, but then hasn’t that been the way since the dawn of time?


Desert Walker


Author: Denis Bartell
Last updated 2012

Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading