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1939 Simpson Desert Expedition

By: Ms Prue Walker, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 27 Aug 2015

The first expedition to the Simpson Desert by a member of the Museum staff.

Harold Fletcher in the Simpson Desert

Harold Fletcher in the Simpson Desert
Photographer: unknown © Reproduction rights Australian Museum

Amongst the members of the expedition that Dr C. T. Madigan led across the Simpson Desert in the winter of 1939, was the second-in-command, Harold Fletcher of the Australian Museum. The party travelled with a string of 19 camels and Harold described the camel he rode as having 'buckjumping tedencies'. While Harold's struggles with his camel were hilarious for the rest of the party, they didn't seem quite so funny to Harold.

He claimed that in the course of the expedition, they crossed 743 sand-ridges:
Fortunately for us the steep slope of the sand-ridges was on the eastern side and the easy slope on the western side, so that our camels had an easy ascent to climb on our journey from west to east.

The party left Andado Station in the Northern Territory on the 4th June, and travelled 347 miles (558 kilometres), traversing the desert to arrive in Birdsville in south-west Queensland on 6th July.

The expedition set out with three definite primary objects, physiography, botany and zoology’. These aims were well and truly fulfilled, even though both Madigan and Fletcher make particular mention of the ‘feat of crossing the desert’.

The main problem they encountered was the unusually heavy rain in the area during the winter of the expedition, which caused part of the route to become very boggy. However, the uncooperative behaviour of the camels was probably almost as much of a problem, at least for Harold.

It was Dr Madigan, lecturer in Geology at the University of South Australia, who defined the margins of the Simpson Desert as a result of his 1929 aerial surveys of the terrain. He followed this up later in the same year, with a ground expedition to Lake Eyre by utility truck.

He also provided its name. The Simpson he honoured was Mr. A. A. Simpson C.M.G., who was at that time the President of the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. Mr. Simpson provided help with the initial investigation, and later provided finance for the expedition that Dr Madigan led across the desert in the winter of 1939.

From 1944 onwards, the following reports relating to the expedition were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia.

Madigan, C. T The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939. Scientific Reports : Introduction, Narrative, Physiography and Meteorology (vol 69, 1945)
Hickman, V. V The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939, Scientific Reports. No. 1, Biology — Scorpions and Spiders (vol 48, 1944)
Carroll, D The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939, Scientific Reports. No. 2, Geology — Desert Sand (vol 48, 1944)
Kinghorn, J. R The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939. Scientific Reports : No. 3, Biology — Reptiles and Batrachians (vol 69, 1945)
Musgrave, A The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939. Scientific Reports : No. 4, Biology — Hemiptera (vol 69, 1945)
Whitley, G. P The Simpson Desert Expedition, 1939. Scientific Reports: No. 5, Biology — Fishes (vol 69, 1945)
Madigan, C. T The Simpson Desert Expedition 1939 — Scientific Reports. No. 6. Geology — The Sand Formations (vol 70, 1946)
Eardley, C M The Simpson Desert Expedition 1939. Scientific Reports No. 7. Botany — Part I. Catalogue of Plants (vol 70, 1946)
Eardley, C. M Simpson Desert Expedition 1939— Scientific Reports No. 7— Botany Pt. II. The Phytogeography of Some Important Sandridge Deserts compared with that of the Simpson Desert (vol 72, 1949)
Crocker, R. L The Simpson Desert Expedition 1939 Scientific Reports: No. 8 — The Soils and Vegetation of the Simpson Desert and its Borders (vol 71, 1947)

 

More information can be found in these reports and also in Harold Fletcher’s article in the The Australian Museum Magazine of Dec 1, 1939.