Most Australians would remember the Leyland Brothers, Mike and Mal from their television shows Ask The Leyland Brothers and Off the Beaten Track. These shows were, to be honest, not of the greatest quality, with very amateurish editing and sound recording going with the professional camera work. However, they were certainly informative and popular.
What most Australians born before 1975 do not realise that the Leylands were pioneers in exploring Australia, albeit not the way that people like Burke and Wills explored unknown Australia. In the early 1960s they travelled down the length of the Darling River, the first to do so. They made a documentary on this.
Their second major adventure was to be the very first crossing of Australia by motor vehicle. In fact, they were certainly the first to cross Australia from the western-most point to the eastern-most point and probably the first to do it by any means.
In late March 1966, Mike and Mal Leyland set off from their home town of Newcastle, NSW, for Western Australia. Mike was 24 years old and Mal 21 years old. Mike was the main film cameraman and Mal concentrated on still photography. Accompanying them was Mike's wife Pat (cook and sound recordist), Ted Hayes (naturalist) and Keith Davey (mechanic). They had two Land Rovers, one a 1958 long wheel base model fitted with a (Holden?) 6 cylinder engine (Mal's car, with Ted and Keith) and the other a 1963 short wheel base model (Mike and Pat). They also had a "heavy duty" trailer built of Land Rover parts as well as a Bridgestone 90 Mountaineer motor bike. The book Where Dead Men Lie is the story of their journey and was published in 1967.
After a lot of planning, in which they wrote off another Land Rover, had problems getting permits to enter "Native Reserves" (now Aboriginal land) and a planning trip to the eastern Simpson Desert to check out the sand dunes, they were almost ready. Some of the permits would never be received leading to a minor problem later in the trip. They ended up carrying 80 jerry cans (20 litres each) of petrol and water, with the result that the trailer was uncontrollable due to inadequate suspension.
After doing some publicity work in Sydney and Canberra, they crossed Australia via the normal Nullarbor Plains route. Even on this section of the trip they encountered problems, breaking a front spring on the 1958 Land Rover near Ceduna in South Australia. From here they headed north to find the way to the western-most place on the Australian mainland, Steep Point. To get there, they had to make their own track across sand dunes and through thick scrub to get close to the cliff edge. Here on 3 May 1966, they collected a flask of Indian Ocean water which they planned to carry right across Australia.
From here, the real story starts. As far as possible, they tried to navigate a straight line across the 26th parallel from Steep Point to Cape Byron in NSW, the eastern-most point of mainland Australia. Within a few miles, the Land Rovers were already having troubles. An 8 year old 1950s Land Rover is not a patch on an 11 year old 1990s Toyota Prado, I can assure you (my father used to bring home 4 year old 1960s model Land Rovers from work in the late 1960s and early 1970s and they were already almost undriveable).
The older of the two Land Rovers towed the very heavy trailer. The trailer was needed for the middle section of the journey when they would have to travel a huge distance without roads, carrying all their water and fuel. The trailer was overloaded, as were the Land Rovers. The major problem that was to be encountered, and almost cause the expedition to come to a halt, was the constant failure of the rear differential in the 1958 Land Rover as well as suspension failures. Only a few days into the trip and less than 300 kilometres under their belt, the first diff died. They did not have a spare, so had to drive on using front wheel drive only.
The book is well written, with Mike and Mal taking turns to write chapters. There are dozens of colour photographs as well as some maps. The first 60% or so of the journey across Australia is along formed roads, although back in 1966 there was not much traffic and even less maintenance. Without the benefit of GPS, they took some wrong turns when signs pointed in the wrong direction.
They dropped in on most properties as they passed through, being afforded great hospitality. I am sure that it was not often that these places had visitors, so it was probably the first time for months that these people were able to chat to a new person. A few detours off the straight line took them to other highlights, including a burial ground of Aboriginals and Dutch sailors killed in battle long ago. At one property, they attended a cricket match, with players coming from hundreds of miles away to play and attend the after match dance.
In Meekatharra they found a diff for $20 and Keith had a emergency dental treatment from the mobile dental clinic that just happened to be in town. They also purchased 88 gallons (396 litres) of fuel. By my calculations, they used about 27.5 litres per 100 kilometres for each vehicle for the approximately 720 kilometres they had travelled since last refuelling. This was from the Overlander Roadhouse back on the "highway".
From Meekatharra they headed east to Wiluna. One of the things that is obvious from this book is that all the Aboriginal towns they visited were then missions run by religious orders. After Wiluna they headed out to Carnegie Station and then travelled via the Gunbarrel Highway. This had only been pushed through by Len Beadell 8 years earlier. Of course, it had received absolutely no maintenance since then and was severely eroded.
After Warburton they visited the Giles Meteorological Station and watched weather balloons being launched. From here they headed into Northern Territory and to The Olgas. Here they encountered the first tourists of the trip. Soon they were at Ayers Rock (as it was only known then). They experienced a once in a lifetime event here, an absolute downpour that turned the rock into a huge waterfall and the roads into rivers. The photos have to be seen to be believed.
After Ayers Rock they travelled via Curtain Springs and Mount Connor (which you do not now seem to be able to visit) to Kulgera and Finke. After refuelling and repairs here (replacing the diff again which had broken at The Olgas), they had to wait for the normally dry Finke River to drop so they could cross it. After six days they headed off to Andado Station. At that time Mac Clark was still alive and he let them camp in the then abandoned Old Andado station.
The next section of the trip was always going to be the hardest. As far as the Leylands knew before starting the trip, no-one had ever driven across the Simpson Desert and no roads existed. They had planned to travel from Old Andado to Birdsville in Queensland in an almost straight line. When they got to Canberra at the start of the trip to Western Australia, they had discovered that a French oil company had put a bulldozed line across the top of South Australia (now known as the French Line) and a person called Reg Sprigg (with his wife Griselda and their children Marg and Doug) had crossed the middle part of the Simpson Desert in a Nissan Patrol in September 1962. Reg established Geosurveys Australia, the company that did the work for the oil company in surveying desert for oil.
Sprigg and his family crossed the Simpson Desert in a basically following the Northern Territory/South Australian border. However, the Leylands planned to cross the Simpson Desert right across its middle section (further north), where the dunes were larger.
After leaving Andado, they headed straight east and crossed the first of the over 1,000 sand dunes. Straight away they hit trouble. The Land Rover towing the trailer had problems hauling itself over the dunes. Some lower ones were able to be crossed, but higher ones needed some thought. One way was to hook the two Land Rovers together with a tow rope and using the leading vehicle as a counter-weight so that its downward momentum hauled the other vehicle and trailer up the dune. A second method was to use a short bar to connect the vehicles and use the power of both to pull the trailer up. The final way was to use the winch on the 1958 Land Rover to pull the trailer up the dune. As you can imagine, all these methods were slow, especially the last one.
After only one day the trailer's towing hitch was badly bent. They repaired it by putting it in a roaring fire and when it was hot enough, straightening it with a tyre lever. The Land Rover suffered another differential failure on the second day, as well as a broken axle. The axle was replaced with a spare and the diff rebuilt using parts from the previously broken ones.
Soon after the 1958 Land Rover's rear spring was ripped away from the chassis and the chassis was cracked in a number of places. They came across a track put in by another mining company and decided to take the 1958 along this to get repairs at the mining company's base camp while Mike, Pat and Ted stayed in the desert. This track ran parallel to the sand dunes so it was an easy run. They found the camp at North Bore. This is where the rare waddy trees (Acacia peuce) are found (now called Mac Clarke Conservation Reserve).
The chassis was welded at the camp and they found out via radio that Mac Clarke had a Land Rover he was wrecking and that they could have a diff and two axles. They drove back to Andado and fitted the diff. When back at the camp, Mal wrangled a ride in a plane used to restock the crews working out in the desert. He soon discovered what a task they had ahead of themselves. Mal and Keith returned back to the rest of their expedition who they had left three days ago.
When Mal arrived back his first words to Mike were "We'll never make it. I've seen it from the air. It's frightening." The next day they were off again. Twelve miles on they came to another track along the valley between two dunes. This led to the Party Two camp so they decided to head south along the track. A short distance along the trailer rolled, with petrol drums flying everywhere.
The next morning they continued down the track and within a few hours they came across a sign that said in part "Welcome to Etamogah Pub and Harry's Diner". This was Camp Two and Harry Reid had set the sign up especially for them as he had been radioed that they might be coming by. He fed them steaks and eggs, something they had not had for a while. They even got a hot shower but he was out of ice cream.
After two nights they headed off east again. Just over the Queensland border they the found a small salt lake. Here they decided to have some fun, dragging each other around behind the short-wheel base Land Rover while they sat on sand mats. The next day the 1958 Land Rover broke another spring. An examination showed that the chassis was again cracked. It then did another diff. This was the fifth broken diff since they started on the journey.
A decision was made to take the diff out of the 1963 Land Rover and put this in the 1958 model which was doing all the real hard work towing the trailer. They then made up another diff from the parts they had and put this in the 1963 model. From here on they were a lot more cautious, winching the trailer up more sand dunes rather than tow it over.
Soon they came to the rabbit-proof fence and the next day Eyre Creek. In the 22 days since they left Andado, they had crossed 1,105 sand dunes covering 430 miles (688 kilometres), all of it in low range. Fuel economy over this section was as low as 3 mpg (94 litres per 100 kilometres!!). On 5 August 1966 they arrived in Birdsville and it was raining again.
The rain continued and they moved from their camp on the Diamantina River into the derelict Community Hall. At least they were dry here. They ended up staying a week till the water in the Diamantina dropped enough for them to cross. They headed east again, this time on very slippery dirt roads. Many times they spun out, sliding off the road.
They travelled via Quilpie, Cunnamulla and Goondiwindi, finally reaching tar roads. On 20 August 1966 they arrived at Cape Byron after 111 days of travel from Steep Point. The water from the Indian Ocean was poured into the Pacific Ocean.
What an magnificent achievement this was! In case you think it is not a hard thing to do, just take into account that the Land Rovers used 94 litres for every 100 kilometres they travelled. To travel the distance across the desert, they carried two 200 litre drums of petrol as well as all their jerry cans. No GPS, very inadequate maps, no internet to let them know what road conditions might be like.
This is a great book for all Australians keen on exploring the Outback. The film made from the trip, Wheels Across a Wilderness opened in early 1967 to packed houses. My Uncle, George Henry Nelson Jnr, took me to see it and I was fascinated by the adventures and resolved there and then to travel to Central Australia and the outback. The film was a great success. It is now available on DVD, search on Google for it.