Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Sir Douglas Mawson and CT Madigan carry on up the Finke in 1927

Last Saturday’s (1/12/12) Oz carried two articles* re-appraising Sir Douglas Mawson’s 1912-13 Antarctic expedition. Personally, I prefer my heroes – if they be in need of re-appraisal at all – to be cut down to size by their own hand, or the hand of their contemporary peers at least. 

Fortunately, there is the straight-bat monograph by Mawson’s fellow Antarctic expeditioner Cecil Thomas (CT) Madigan (1889-1947), Central Australia (1936) – all pages references are to this, unless stated otherwise –  that does just this; albeit inadvertently, and with Mawson as only a bit-player.  There is a nice symmetry here:  Madigan is barely known as an Antarctic explorer, despite being leader of the six men who stayed behind, rather heroically IMO, for another winter, to wait for the overdue Mawson and party, viz Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis.  (The oh-so-Burke-and-Wills-at-Coopers-Creek twist in this story is that Mawson staggered alone into base on 8 February 1913 – Mertz and Ninnis had died en route – hours after the expedition’s supply ship sailed off, at the end of the Antarctic summer).

Madigan and Mawson’s winter 1927** Western MacDonnell Ranges mission was officially geological in purpose – they were both trained in this field.  With two others (driver Harry Wolffe and “Simon”), they comprised a “nitrate syndicate” (p 81).  The foursome headed off by car to inspect a nitrate deposit in the Ellery Creek vicinity.  

But to the joy of this particular map nerd, the journey somehow became a quixotic geographical quest – to sort out, once and for all, whether the Glen Helen Station of the time (where the present-day eponymous “resort” is) was in the same east-west valley as Alice Springs (“the Alice Valley”); i.e. was Glen Helen to the north (just) of the Heavitree Range.  

Travelling by car, their expedition was probably the first such motorised vehicle in the area:

“[T]here is no way into the ranges up the Finke by vehicle; in fact, it is impossible to get through the ridges into the longitudinal valleys of the ranges [from the east] anywhere west of the Hugh with a motor-car, and only at a few passes with pack animals” . . . [W]estward from Jay [Creek] Gap there is only a bridle path to Glen Helen Station, made by [Fred] Raggatt’s donkeys and horses  (pp 82, 84)

Fortunately, Madigan didn’t believe his own counsel, and his syndicate party managed to be the first car ever to reach Glen Helen Station, after crossing, with the assistance of some dynamite, the Heavitree Range through the “low and unimpressive” Eight Mile Gap (50 miles west of Alice Springs) (pp 86 -88).     

The nitrate deposit – the official purpose of the expedition – is mentioned only in passing (p 86)***, apparently because Madigan discovered much more interesting things en route. 

In particular, he was pleased to correct the errors of the 1894 Horn Expedition in thinking that Glen Helen Station**** was in the Alice Valley (pp 86 -87), and that Dr Charles Chewings had, “wrongly I think”, labelled, c. 1915, some (Eastern) MacDonnell Ranges’ fossils “cryptozoon” (p 87).  

Unfortunately – but perhaps inevitably – Madigan, while on quite a roll of correcting the errors of distinguished others, makes a simple blooper of his own, calling Eight Mile Gap the last gap in the Heavitree Range before Ormiston Pound to the west, while on the very next page waxing about “magnificent” (albeit unsighted, on that trip) Ellery Creek Gap (or “Big Hole”, as it is usually now termed) just to the west (pp 86 -87; see also pp 194-199).  Albeit, the pioneering car journey became particularly rough west of Ellery Creek, and Madigan, not in the driver’s seat, was not exactly chipper at this stage:

He [Harry Wolffe] tore along creek beds, up banks, and through bushes; the car must have been within a few degrees of the over-turning angle”. (p 88)    

Being a map nerd myself, I well understand Madigan’s “gotcha” conclusion in 1927, that Glen Helen Station was not in the Alice Valley, was not quite proof enough.  Hence Madigan’s 1929 aerial surveys (again geological in purpose, but this time without Mawson): officially of the Simpson Desert (which Madigan duly named), but also having a side-trip to – who would have guessed? – the Western MacDonnell Ranges:

The results of this part of the work exceeded all expectations.  The identity of all the ranges and ridges was established, and some interesting and unique photographs were obtained . . . [albeit these photographs] stopped short of what afterwards proved to be the most interesting part of the ranges, the southern margin. [In case it is not obvious, Madigan was not the photographer on this reconnaissance – instead, he flew lower, on a second plane.]   . . . It was finally established that Glen Helen is not in the Alice Valley, which is north of the Heavitree Range, but lies south of that range”. (pp 132-134)  (emphasis added)   

Still apparently unsatisfied with his Western MacDonnell Ranges geography, but again with a geological pretext (p 192), Madigan once again set off from Alice Springs, in winter 1930, this time by camel (again without Mawson).  He didn’t entirely retrace his wheel-tracks from 1927; in 1930 he stuck south of the Heavitree Range all the way.  West of Ellery Creek, where the 1927 and 1930 paths were, on paper, identical, Madigan notes:

“I failed to pick out the track we took with the motor-car three years before . . .which is not surprising, as I spent most of the time then hanging on to the car, and got completely bushed” (p 200).   

Presumably therefore un-“bushed” (= car sick?) in 1930, Madigan was finally able to name “Glen Helen Valley” as the valley – you guessed it – Glen Helen Station sits in (p 195). But just in case the tale-of-two-valleys conclusion from his two earlier expeditions was still not 100% absolutely certain, Madigan once again restates the matter, which necessitates finding the 1894 Horn Expedition freshly erroneous:

We had then proved that the Glen Helen Valley does run continuously from the telegraph line (not from Alice Springs, but from the south side of the Heavitree Range), direct to Glen Helen, without a break.  This was claimed for the Horn Valley, but that error was discovered in the next few days [see p 212].  The Glen Helen Valley runs for not only ninety miles to Glen Helen Valley, but continues for another fifty miles westward, gradually widening until it loses its identity in a wide plain”. (p 195)

It is tempting to leave this story with Madigan’s final, final conclusion on the tale-of-three-valleys (including the Horn Valley) (p 212, if you must), but I prefer the twin bookends of his two times on the ground at and around Glen Helen, in 1927 and 1930.  Just south of Glen Helen, the well-known gorge is, of course, a path between two valleys, as is the lesser-known Gunpowder Gap, about five km north.   

The first time, after a rough car journey, Madigan did what any intrepid tourist would – climbed the range through which the Finke has cut the gorge, and then returned to Glen Helen the least worst way:

It is a difficult climb, but not impossible, to cross the range on foot.  Wolffe climbed over the west side of the gap, and I on the east . . . Neither Wolffe nor I fancied the climb back, preferring to try the water.  On my return, I found him half-way through the gap, clinging half submerged to the steep rocky sides at water level, and working his way along, greatly handicapped by his gun and bundle of clothes.  I followed him, and had such a wretched time of it that I realized that I would have been better to let the clothes get wet than scratch myself on the rock and endure the constant fear of slipping in”. (p 89)   

Ah, “the constant fear of slipping in” – that primal nightmare, kept mostly at bay, it would seem, by Madigan’s obsessive cartography.  At Glen Helen Station in 1930s, a guest of then owner Fred Raggatt, Madigan (who has arrived by camel) yet again oddly forgets his pioneering 1927 car journey there: 

The place, hedged in by the great ridges, was a stranger to wheeled vehicles” (p 202).   

Odder, perhaps – but sadder, certainly – is Madigan’s feeling of being “hedged in” at Glen Helen, when just seven pages earlier we were told that the Glen Helen Valley runs for 140 continuous east-west miles. 

Enter the northern wall of the Glen Helen Valley – at the longitude of the Station, this is the range between Ormiston Gorge (where the Heavitree and Chewings Ranges fuse, and end) and Mt Sonder. Admittedly this range is not well-known or spectacular country, despite its hosting the celebrated Finke River’s home-ground (the actual “source” of the Finke is an immaculate binary:  the confluence of Davenport and Ormiston Creeks, about 3 km north of Glen Helen).  There is only one entrance/exit to the Glen Helen Valley to the north of the station; Gunpowder Gap:   

After lunch, we started on the Mount Sonder excursion.  George [Tucker; who was a non-Indigenous worker assisting Fred Raggatt at the time; p 201] insisted on coming with us for about four miles to show us the way.  This meant I had to walk too, and I was feeling weary, but he left us near Gunpowder Gap, and we went on and camped at the gap, where we found the range was low and uninspiring, and the gap not striking”. (p 203)

As with the similarly “low and unimpressive” Eight Mile Gap (above), as permanently altered by Madigan and Mawson’s 1927 dynamiting, Gunpowder Gap is a transition zone that Madigan refuses to recognise – as if only those gorges that are (i) spectacular and (ii) need to be swum (e.g. Ormiston (where Madigan seems not to have gone) and Glen Helen gorges) are worthy.  Cecil – if you can hear me – from one map nerd to another, it is (paradoxically I know) those dry and sketchy transitions like Gunpowder Gap that we really swim naked, deeply through.  And through.

* Matthew Denholm, “Mawson’s ‘ambition, inexperience’ led to expeditioners’ deaths”, and David Day, “Flaws in the ice”, Australian 1 December 2012 

** This date has been extrapolated by fact that the camel expedition was “three years” later, in winter 1930; see Central Australia (1936)  p 194)

*** Madigan elaborated – slightly – on this in a 1932 geological journal article:

A hurried motor journey was made to near Glen Helen Station, 90 miles west of Alice Springs, to inspect a deposit of saltpetre in limestone caves. Only five days were spent in the field, three of them in travelling, and there was little time for geological work . . .”
- “The Geology of the Western MacDonnell RangesCentral Australia”, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, February 1932, vol 88, pp 672-710 (paywalled URL, Google search extract)

**** Glen Helen Station has had four disparate locations since its founding c.1880.  At the time of the 1894 Horn Expedition, it had moved to the banks of Crawford Creek, near Mt Razorback – west of, but in the same valley as, present-day Glen Helen “Resort” (the first incarnation of the station, on Ormiston Creek, was also in the same valley).

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