• Thewhiteox

12 Things you might not know about C.T. Madigan and his 1939 Simpson Desert Expedition.

Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Colourised photo of a youthful portrait found in the beginning of Madigan's book

If you're serious about overlanding, desert touring or four wheel driving, chances are you've been pouring over maps and googling all the information you can find about the Madigan Line.   It's no where near as known or frequently driven as the Canning Stock Route, yet probably more intrepid and logistically challenging, and offers a more technical drive, with bigger dunes, and the added adventure of needing to navigate via GPS coordinates. Unlike the usual Simpson desert crossings - the QAA and the French line, this barely discernible track goes right through the interior of the desert, and depending when you go, you're unlikely to find anyone else there with you.  Almost the only signs you'll find of human activity, are in the form of singular yellow star picket fence posts with a tiny plaque that reads "C.T Madigan 1939 expedition. Location of CAMP" followed by a number. So who is this C.T. Madigan, and how on earth did he come to be in the middle of the Australian desert in 1939? 

When we stumbled upon Camp 16 and Madigan's blaze tree as we turned off from the Hay River track, searching for a route that would be a little more challenging and isolated, we knew absolutely nothing about The Madigan Line or the man who made it. However, as we followed his camps down to Birdsville, taking in the sublime beauty of the Simpson desert, I developed a minor obsession with this pioneering Australian explorer, surveyor, geologist and war hero who we came to refer to as "Mad dog".  In all honesty, I could have titled this article "ten reasons Dr Cecil Thomas Madigan is the greatest Australian explorer of all time". Whether like us you've never heard of him before, you're looking at doing the track and want some historical information, or you've read his wonderful account of his expedition "Crossing the Dead Heart" and want to relive some of the magic, my hope is that more people will come to know Madigan's name. I want the fascinating story of his incredible expedition through the heart of such a little explored desert to be an inspiration to follow in his footsteps, both literally through the Simpson, but also in his respect for the people he met along the way, his careful planning, and his gentle and considerate nature.


1. This was not his first rodeo.  Madigan was fifty years old when he set out on this expedition, and had already faced death and danger, having been chosen to accompany Mawson as his second in command on his Antarctic expedition (though he found Mawson to be lacking as a leader). He served in the front line in France in WW1 with the Royal Engineers, 76th Field Company, Guards Division, becoming captain in 1916. Soon after, after completing his doctorate in Geology through a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, in 1920, he went as assistant government geologist to the Sudan where he first encountered deserts and the use of camels in geological field operations.  And yet, he felt the closing of time, and knew he didn't have many great adventures left before him, and when they began to get close to the Mulligan river he asks himself if this might indeed be his last - "The adventure is nearly over and the task done; the glamour was fading. Indeed, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Perhaps this was the last of the hard journeys I had started out upon so hopefully 28 years before, to end them in this desert place. For some of the young men in the party it was the first real living they had known, but they had all before them. Would I ever be out on the trail again?" He would live only another eight years, teaching and inspiring students at the university of Adelaide until the end. In his obituary, Madigan's friend J.A. Douglas noted that "Australian geology has been deprived of one of its most colourful personalities, a man who throughout his entire life had retained the youthful spirit of the true pioneer and explorer."

2. He named the Simpson desert.

His first real encounter with the Simpson desert was in 1929 as he began aerial reconnaissance of Central Australia and northern South Australia over the course of several surveys. This was the first time that systematic aerial strip-photography had been attempted in Australia and aeroplanes used for geological work, and when he named the desert after A.A. Simpson, the president of the Royal Geographic Society at that time, who funded his expeditions. This is what sparked his curiosity of the desert interior, and thus began his desire to venture into "the dead heart" as Sturt had dubbed it in 1845.

Andy with Fletcher and Crocker

3. He was a man of integrity, who believed in equality.  He employed indigenous men as part of his expedition, who were treated as friends and equals at a time when most aboriginal people were treated as second class- in South Australia it was banned for non-aboriginal people to socialise with Aboriginal people, and it would be thirty years before aboriginals had the right to vote in federal elections. Shockingly and disgustingly, debate continued at this time, on "where between ape and man could the aboriginal be situated in evolutionary terms", not to mention pay discrepancies, and the horrors of the stolen generation still being in force.   Though he was not what you would consider an activist, he was certainly very forward thinking, and sympathetic to the aboriginal people, particularly for his time, frequently citing indigenous names for places and things in the areas he visited, and showing respect to clan names, elders and children alike.  Andy, an indigenous man of the Dieri people, joins the expedition at Andado Station, and becomes the books most lovable character, with his knowledge of the country, kindness, care for animals, sense of humour and unwavering enthusiasm. "Andy came running up from the rear and at once picked up the snake and began to treat it with sympathy, even affection. It was a womma, a harmless carpet snake. Everyone had to handle it then, and most of the party were photographed with it around their necks"

Simpson, the wireless operator, with the Womma snake

While he doesn't make the book outrightly political, he frequently says things that make the reader sure about his stance on how colonialism has negatively affected black Australians, and his distain for the way they were treated: "The permanent stock-carrying capacity of the country depends on the perennial shrubs, which are the drought resistors, and they are in very delicate equilibrium with their environment. They can stand very little interference at all. They are like the aboriginals, in that contact with the white man leads to their extinction."   He was also a considerate and loving husband to his wife, Wynnis Knight Wollaston. The inscription at the start of the book reads "To my wife, who has done so much at home". Sigh.

4. He was a stickler for adequate preparation. 

Any experienced overlander knows that preparation and knowledge is everything. If you've gone over your vehicle(/camel) with a fine tooth comb, changed your filters, checked your tyres, shaken your exhaust, tested your injectors and restocked your first aid kit, packed minimally and carefully, and thought over every possibility of difficulty, only then can you fully enjoy a trip, with the freedom to explore as you wish, Mad dog knew this all too well.

"The success of an expedition depends primarily on the preliminary organisation. Stefansson has rightly said that adventures are a sign of incompetence. In these days, when no terrestrial conditions are quite unknown, success should be assured before an expedition sets out; nothing unexpected should happen, no difficulties should arise that the party is not prepared to meet and defeat. Many explorers have said that their greatest difficulties and worries were endured before ever they set sail, and once all equipment and party were on board the rest was comparatively easy."

5. They had an HF radio.  While you might think a 1939 expedition would be without comms, such a landmark expedition meant they were making frequent public broadcasts, as well as getting and receiving messages from the outside world.

Traeger demonstrating his pedal wireless

They used the popular Traeger pedal set (later to be used by the Royal Flying Doctors) operated by the the son of the expedition's patron, R.A Simpson, who's wireless gear made up "the best part of another camel load" Madigan describes it as light and compact, with a 'small aerial'. That small aerial was about twenty foot tall and it all looks like it would require a masters in physics to set up, but with a fairly astonishing range of 1000 miles, where today, though extremely variable, we can expect 300km at most, but more likely around 50km from a UHF, it's quite surprising how much they were able to keep in contact.

Setting up the 'small' aerial

I'll let old Mad Dog tell you more about it in his own rather poetic words.

"The wireless equipment was one of Traeger's pedal sets, made in Adelaide. These excellent little outfits were in use at many homesteads throughout the interior, in fact there was a regular network of internal communication in the north-east of South Australia and through Birdsville into Queensland… 

The Traeger set is very light and consists of the pedal generator and necessary valve equipment, and a small aerial with telescopic poles. We also carried batteries which were found quite adequate and lasted the journey through, so that the pedal generator was scarcely used. The range was up to a thousand miles at night. Yunta was six hundred miles from us and we never failed to make contact at night."

Simpson operates the wireless as David Marshall (photographer) operates the pedals

The wireless transmitter was inside the shelter and that night the first broadcast was attempted. It was very different from giving a talk from a studio, crouched there under the tarpaulin with inadequate light, no table, notes scribbled in pencil and only one hand to hold them, the other being occupied with the little telephone transmitter. The wonder of it appealed strongly to me and I tried to to make my listeners feel it too. There were we, in our cramped, cold, damp and ill-lit quarters in the sand dunes, hundreds of miles from any signs of human activity, hidden away in the most inaccessible part of Australia's empty wastes, and yet I was talking to people sitting before fires in armchairs a thousand miles away and surrounded by all the luxuries of modern civillisation. My voice was in their rooms, a voice from where all else was silence except for the tinkle of the camel bells, and an occasional dingos howl, not even the voice of the cricketer, as Andy called it, is heard in that land. Against the background of our most ancient and primitive way of life and travel, the modern scientific equipment showed up in sharp relief, compelling the realisation that in civilised places the amenities that science makes available are multiplying so rapidly that appreciation of them is dulled and lags behind. The little wireless plant could bridge three thousand years"

Simpson operates the wireless

6. He pushed for one of his party, Andy to be the first aboriginal person to be heard on public radio.  Again, an indication of his belief in equality and the rights of aboriginal Australians, that can not be minimised at a time where racism, segregation and inequality were rife. Andy was excited about the broadcast, and as a practice, sang a traditional ceremonial song to the group which left them in speechless awe, though unfortunately nerves somewhat got the better of him when it was actually broadcast.

"I had announced at the first broadcast that next time Andy would be on the air, a full-blooded Aboriginal speaking to Australia, which would be something new to broadcasting, and coming from the heart of the desert would make it even more unique. It was arranged that Andy should say a few words and then sing a Corroboree song…

I gave my talk and then introduced Andy. I could see his confidence oozing away as the moment approached, by the time I handed him the phone he was speechless. It was a lot to expect of him, and for a moment I though all was lost. At last he found a still, small voice, and said "Dog all about. Singum good song", and went straight into the song. It lacked the fire of the previous performances, but it did not falter, and the sequence of strange cadences sounded quite typical, and I believe went over very well. He gained more confidence towards the end, and when it finished he called quite boldly "good luck all people in Australia"! It was a good impromptu end, and showed he realised what he was doing. Later in the evening he suddenly said, "My nerves all gone".

Andy enjoying his tea

7. He was extremely kind and considerate of others Madigan's humility and humanity constantly comes across throughout the book, whether it's giving the school children in Birdsville the day off, or a particuarly heart warming account of making sure nobody felt left out when messages came in from home.

"On the next night at Camp 14 everyone got a message from home except Andy. It was later noticed that Andy had gone very silent and sad, and it occurred to Simpson to get a message for him as well, so this was staged, I called to Simpson to listen in again in case any further messages were to hand, and Simpson went to the receiver and after a while had an imaginary conversation with Harry Ding, which included a stereotyped intonation, repetition of each phrase and much "Over to you, Harry over to you", of which Simpson was now a master. Soon he had a message of greetings and good wishes from Col. Thomas written out on a slip of paper, and gave it to Andy. Andy could not read it, but put it in the pocket of his shirt, and was once more his enthusiastic self. He said "All day he feel people thinking about him down there". It made him very happy. It seemed a pity that it was a deception.

8. They were forever chasing the mail truck, and were astonished by the mailmen's ingenuity. 

The mail truck was held up by flooding along the roads, which meant they didn't get their mail upon arrival at Birdsville, and spent several days on horse back hoping the vehicle would meet them, and instead found evidence of their incredible resourcefulness to get the post to where it needed to be (though they did eventually meet the the mail truck itself).

The Mailtruck

When we arrived at it we found it was the end of a forty gallon petrol drum of a familiar yellow colour, that had been cut out of the drum. There were other ends lying about, with holes in them where smaller discs had been cut out, and the tracks of the truck were still clear. So this was where the Birdsville Mailman on his last trip on this route had cut clutch plates out of petrol drums to repair his ruined clutch! We had read about it in the newspapers, but though I have the greatest respect for the ingenuity of the bush mechanic, I had thought this was going a bit far in good stories. However, here was proof of it. Hammer, cold chisel and file were probably his only tools. 9. He wasn't actually the first person to go through the Simpson, and pays tribute to his predecessors, though was unaware of its indiginous inhabitants. Though Madigan mistakenly believed that Aboriginal people hadn't been, let alone lived in the Simpson desert, this was not the case. The conservation area of the desert has now been given its rightful name of Munga-Thirri, which translates to "sandhill country", and I'm certain that Madigan and Simpson would both support the desert being given the distinct names that it was known by, by it's indiginous people. I wonder if perhaps he thought it had not been inhabited due to the reluctance and seeming fear of the indiginous people he met to go there, but perhaps this was due to them being unwilling to trespass on another indigenous groups land? It's hard to say, and I'm merely speculating, but given Madigan's respect for referring to places and things by their, in his own words, "proper" names, it seems unlikely that this oversight was intentional.

He also describes Colson's journey, who used the help of Anterkarinya (local Aboriginal) man, Peter Ains, to cross the desert from west to east and then back again, from Anacoora Bore (slightly East of New Crown on the map above). In 1936, Mr E. A. Colson, a pastoralist of Blood's Creek, made a very successful southern crossing of the desert with one black boy and camels, travelling from Mt. Etingambra near Anacoora Bore to Poeppel's Corner and Birdsville, and returning on a more southerly route. His journey lay immediately north of Lindsay's Track, and he was the first to travers the vicinity of the 26th parallel, the border line between the Territory and South australia. 10. He could appreciate the simple things in life. One of my favourite aspects of Madigan's book, is his ability to enjoy the journey, and find joy in the most simple pleasures, like picking flowers while out surveying the terrain, describing a particularly peaceful sunrise, or commenting on how much the minimalism of expedition life makes you appreciate the simple things upon return to so called civilisation.

"I watched a very wonderful dawn at this waterhole, one that has stood out clearly in my memory ever since, among the hundred dawns we saw. It was cloudless and calm. I lay in my bed on the bare ground above the steep bank, just beyond the thin line of trees that edged the waterhole. The moon was high, but its light was already paling and the shadows were gone. Orion still rode the skies, but the glorious morning star in the east was heralding the approach of the bold sun. The sky still held the dark blue of the night, but towards the east it changed to dove grey, then light grey and finally to a strip of tangerine that lay low on the horizon. They were not the brilliant colours of the sunset clouds, but the most delicate hues of the sky itself. The black trees were silhouetted against these lovely tints. Gradually the stars faded and the mystic moonlight withdrew as night crept silently away, and objects to their true shape and distance in the hard light of day."

Madigan lighting his pipe at dawn

 11. He knew the importance of great leadership. Mad dog was a natural leader. Throughout the book, you get a tremendous sense of camaraderie with his men, but there was no doubt that Madigan was the father of the group. He'd also been a captain during WWI, and at the tender age of 22, he lead a group through Antarctica much more successfully than Mawson, who took the credit, even watching the boat, that he knew wouldn't return for another year, sail away in order to go back to search for Mawson, and his two friends and colleagues, Ninnis and Mertz, though only hours later, Mawson returned and revealed the other two men had died.

He taught at The University of Adelaide for most of his life, and was, by all accounts, a much cherished teacher and lecturer.


His interaction with a drover, while they made their way from Birdsville back to Marree, says a lot about his thoughts on leadership. When I asked one drover about his difficulties he made a very wise remark that applies to leaders in all walks of life, and I have often quoted it since. He said a drover must know more than his men and do more than his men. 12. He always remained optimistic. One cannot forget that while Madigan and his men took their camels through the desert, a brutal war was about to break out all around the world from 1939-1945, and it is telling that the book wasn't published until 1946. Madigan leaves us with a positive and hopeful final paragraph.  As I bring this story to a close, light is beginning to break in the darkness. The prospect of an end to this return to savagery is dimly seen, and one takes heart to look forward with hope to chastened and readjusted world wherein right and justice rule, where all men can work in peace and good will for the benefit of humanity and not its destruction, and where once again one will be free to take pleasure and pride in such things as the study of deserts. 

You can read about our experience driving part of the Madigan Line in October 2018 on the White Ox Blog, as well as other tracks and adventures throughout Australia.

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