Bound for Birdsville

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.  

2012 Outback Snaps Competition

As the sun sets over red, windswept dunes, an eager photographer leans over her tripod to capture the moment. Simultaneously, a family in a 4WD is careening up the face of Big Red, the tallest sand dune in the Simpson Desert. An onlooker snaps a photo of them emerging from a cloud of red dust as they mount the crest. Across town, a group of motorbike riders are practicing for the following day’s gymkhana. With a camera in hand, they perform jumps and wheel stands, taking turns to ride and photograph.

The outback is a place of mesmerizing beauty, unique events and lifelong adventure. When this essence of the outback is captured on film, it should be celebrated and shared. Therefore the Birdsville Roadhouse, together with the Birdsville community, is launching the inaugural 2012 Outback Snaps photography competition.

Amongst the residents of Birdsville, there are some very talented amateur photographers. Their photos are displayed in the Wirrarri Information Centre, in an exhibition titled ‘On The Land’. These photographs are shared and enjoyed by the community and travellers alike and exemplify why us locals love the outback so much.

However, we know that amongst the thousands of travellers who we meet in Birdsville each year, there are so many who adore the area as much as we do. Whether you’re serious photographers, experienced bushies or holiday makers with a simple camera, we think that amongst you, there must be some fabulous photos of the outback, Birdsville and your memorable adventures.

Therefore, we are calling on everyone who has photographs of the Birdsville area, both local and those who have passed through, to submit them to our Outback Snaps competition.

There are three categories, monthly prizes and an overall winner that will be announced in December. Lorraine Kath, a photographer from Mt Leonard Station who was instrumental in founding the Birdsville Photography Group, will judge the competition. Her book, My Colours, is a beautifully presented gallery of award-winning photographic work that is available for purchase at numerous locations around Birdsville.

Lorraine’s interest in photography developed after the birth of her children, who she enjoyed photographing as they grew. Living on a cattle station further encouraged her to capture unique moments of life on the land on film.

She will be looking for photographs that capture the essence of the outback, preferably the channel country region, are well composed and fit into one of the three competition categories.

Categories:

4WD Adventure – depicts the spirit of escaping to the outback in your 4WD. Photos can be of your vehicle, a sticky situation or a picturesque moment that you have only experienced because you have set out on a 4WD adventure.

Nature – it’s the landscape, wildlife and sunsets that make the outback, and in particular the channel country, so utterly charming. Any photo focusing on the beauty of the region can be entered in this category.

Action and Events – some of country’s most unique events are held in the outback, and there’s always some sort of action occurring in Birdsville and surrounds. This broad category draws together all images depicting unusual events and action-filled outback experiences.

To enter, email a maximum of five photos to competitions@birdsvilleroadhouse.com.au with a caption, your name, hometown and the category of your photo. We will then put them in the online competition gallery for viewing and will email winning entrants each month.

We look forward to seeing your photographs and displaying them for people to enjoy the spirit of the outback that you have captured.