In 1956 I was in the middle of the Simpson Desert attached to 1 Troop of 17th Independent Field Squadron Royal Australian Engineers as part of the advance party preparing the site for the intending round of Atomic bomb tests to be held later in the year.
Towers were being erected and bunkers dug to accommodate the bombs and as part of the subsequent examinations to ascertain the forces and extent of damage dosimeters were placed miles from the site and it was necessary for straight lines of sight be established between the explosion site and the position of the gauges.
The bush in the area is, or was, of low lying mulga scrub and scraggy desert type eucalypt and dense rolly polly grasses. We, the members of the plant troop ex 17 Construction Squadron, were issued with very old and tired Caterpillar D7 cable operated bull dozers. These machines had been operated and abused in the previous years by the allied works council during the war years and were really past their use by date but in the penny pinching government thinking along with the dated and rotting tents used for our accommodation were thought to be good enough for the then Regular Army and their working companions.
Lenny Beadell, now known as the last of the great Australian explorers was not as well known as he is deservedly today and in fact was not known by reputation to any of us young inexperienced soldiers.
I met Len when he arrived at the 43 mile camp site in his easily recognised land rover vehicle. This vehicle was unusual for the time. Firstly it was hard covered having a custom body built over the roof and the rear section having the normal canvas cover replaced with sheet metal. This in turn was painted in very large black and white squares all over for the reason to make it very obvious to searching airplanes or indeed any search party sent to look for this desert roamer. Over the whole vehicle was a series of steel piping forming a cage and this was said to enable Len to roll the vehicle back on its tyres in case of a roll over in the ever present large sand hills. I now doubt if Peaches (remembering Len Beadel) this was a possibility but then, like a lot of larger than life stories and legends of Len Beadell, may have been true.
On the ground to support the large weight of the vehicle were large balloon low profile tyres that may well have started life as aircraft tyres and were quite a novelty for the time. The back of the rover was compartmentised into recesses and these were filled with all the necessary working tools for a lone surveyor such as food, water, fuel, theodolite and tripod, rifle, tins and boxes etc. Much like the gypsies caravans of old.
Lanes were required to be formed from the axis of the bomb radiating out to where the instruments had been placed at varied distances. I was fortunate to be able to work with this amazing man.
The manner of constructing the lanes was for Len to proceed on a compass bearing to a high point, normally atop a sand dune and using a common type shaving mirror reflect the sun in my direction and then by recognising some stable point as near as possible to the glare of the flashing mirror I would take the dozer through the scrub pushing aside the low grasses and knocking over and pushing out of the way those trees in the way. Once the line was started poles with yellow flags would be placed on the sand dune and soon a line of these coloured flags would mark the route and enable the dozer to be kept on line by looking back and lining up the flags.
Two problems slowed down what should have been an easy task. First wild dingoes took a liking to the cloth of the flags and would continually walk along behind the freshly turned up earth and without a worry in the world from the roaring diesel engine and clattering tracks nonchalantly tear the cloth form the poles.
Secondly the mulga scrub provided a problem in that it couldn’t be allowed to bunch up higher than the blade of the bulldozer as when it was hit it broke into sharp pieces like spears and would have gone straight through the holes in the front of the steel plate radiator guard and into the radiator. If allowed to carry onto the moving tracks it would have done the same type of damage to the operator and this would have really held the bomb tests up.
In summer the desert is hot to the extreme, the metal of the machine is too hot to touch and the same must be said of those unfortunately to be out in the sun. After a few hours of work I thought it was time for a bit of refreshment, it had to be over time for lunch so at the next sand hill I turned off the machine and asked Len what was the plan for lunch. Len appeared nonplussed and indicated that this task was too important to stop just for something to eat and any way there would be a hot meal awaiting us when we returned to the camp, now miles away, in the evening.
The thought of continuing without any sustance was beyond me, a young 19 year old burning up all those calories and sweating in the heat of day and I made this clear to Len. I needed food.
No problem, at least to Len, he opened the rear of the Land Rover rummaged around for a short time and victoriously took out a can of sliced peaches and a tomahawk. Two swift whacks with the tool and “there you are” warm peaches a la carte for lunch.
From then on each time I had the honour to work with the last of Australia’s great explorers I made sure that I visited the mess tent and acquired a cut lunch that rested in the dozer tool box until needed.
(Ed: Following the previous article, I received the following letter with the above article. We never know how far our little newsletter travels, or who reads it, but we are most grateful to Ken for this wonderful personal insight into a great man.
I note that you are to have a speaker on the subject of Len Beadel. May I be so bold as to forward to you my experience with this great man? I was a Canada Bay boy from Regatta Rd. Sunny Side where I was so fortunate to reside and play alongside and in the Bay.
Fond Regards, Ken Meredith)