Griselda Sprigg and her children try to escape the heat.
When Griselda Sprigg was asked, incredulously, why she should want to cross the Simpson Desert she replied: “All these blokes have done it – why shouldn’t I?” This was in 1962, as she and her family were planning the first motorized crossing of the barren, dune-laden Simpson Desert that covers 176,500 square kilometres of central Australia.
Prior to their trip, the desert had been traversed by surveyors, settlers and land prospectors – but only crossed twice. Of course, the Wangkangurru people, the traditional owners of the land, were the first to travel the Simpson. They lived on desert animals and made wells for water as they roamed the dunes – descendents of the tribe still live in the Birdsville area today.
In 1936, Ted Colson became the first white man to actually cross the desert. With Peter Ains, his aboriginal friend and guide, and five camels, he crossed from his homestead near Dalhousie to Birdsville and back in 36 days. A monument opposite the Birdsville Hotel recognizes their achievement.
Cecil Madigan’s crossing followed in 1939. It was he who, a decade earlier, had named the desert the Simpson after a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide called Alfred Simpson who had provided the funds for a grateful Madigan to survey the region. Until then it was called the Arunta Desert. Madigan returned to cross the desert in 1939 with the intention of surveying its least-known areas and was again funded by Simpson.
However, it was the gutsy Griselda Sprigg, her geologist husband Reg and their two children, Marg and Doug, who first crossed the desert in a motorized vehicle. They spurred the beginning of a four-wheel-driving challenge that now brings thousands of travellers to Birdsville each year.
Doug, Reg and Griselda Sprigg
Griselda was a young Scottish lass who met Reg (won him in a bet, as she says) while he was in Scotland for a conference. Their romance lasted for two years via correspondence after he returned to Australia. Eventually, he proposed over the phone and Griselda immigrated to Australia.
She slowly grew accustomed to the Adelaide heat. But, when Reg was assigned to months of work in the arid South Australian outback shortly after their marriage, Griselda, not wanting to live without her new husband, insisted on joining him. Her adaptation to life in a caravan, the dust, heat and flies of the outback is admirable and led to a life of remote outback travel, even after the birth of her two children.
The Sprigg children at the original Poeppel’s Corner post.
While Reg founded Geosurveyors of Australia and Santos and discovered some of the most ancient fossils known to man, Griselda was by his side. “I would try to be inventive,” she said of her limited pantry while crossing the Simpson Desert. “But there are only so many ways you can cook spam.”
Her book, Dune is a Four-Letter Word, is an entertaining, honest reflection of her life in the outback contemplating red back spiders on the loo and learning bush mechanics on the Birdsville Track (“we limped into Mungerannie, me walking beside the Land Rover, sprinkling talcum powder every time I sensed a puff of burning rubber,”). A large part of the book documents their Simpson Desert journey, which is being recreated in Birdsville this week as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.
For those contemplating the desert crossing today, it’s a very different experience. Reading about Griselda’s quest for a toilet at the township of Finke (“Why in heaven’s name were men made to pee standing up?”), her battle with spinifex (“Marg was at the time trying to remove spinifex spines from my derriere… I wondered once again what could possibly have possessed me to trade those cool Scottish climes for a desert dune,”) and combating an overheating car on a rough track (“The track got worse and so did my already frazzled mood. Every few miles I had to slide under the car to remove clumps of grass,”) is enough to make any four-wheel-drive enthusiast feel lucky for the now heavily traversed Simpson tracks, roof-top tents and battery-powered car fridges.
The Simpson Desert today.
You can buy Dune is a Four-Letter Word here.