Those of us who enjoy exploring the outback of Australia by 4WD will often come across relics that might spark at least a passing interest in history. The outback is like that. Stone cairns, abandoned trucks, hills named by white explorers to honor some far-distant patron. These artifacts are often insignificant things that in a busier place would have disappeared long ago. Some tell no story. Like the 373 car wrecks that lie along the Great Central Road. (Please count them and let me know, I may have missed a couple.)
Others are no more than the name of the road you are driving along. The Connie Sue Highway, the Anne Beadell Highway, The Gary Highway, the Gunbarrel Highway. Wikipedia tells us ‘Highways in Australia are generally high capacity roads…’ so you might be rattlin’ along one of these wondering what twisted public official named these corrugated dirt single tracks ‘highways’?
The answer of course is Len Beadell. He was a surveyor and road maker whose team built all those roads. The Gunbarrel, his first really long road, took two years and more flat tyres than there are wrecked cars on the Great Central Road. You can read the story of making the Gunbarrel in Beadell’s book ‘Too long in the Bush.’ This and his other books are still in print, and what shines through is his good humor and humanity. And dentistry.
Apparently teeth problems were common on long outback projects so Len Beadell learnt dentistry. By the time they finished the Gunbarrel he had extracted 29 teeth from his workers. Don’t we all wish we had a boss like that?
The Gunbarrel was the first road to link outback east and west Australia, and it was required so that the British military could test fire Blue Streak rockets from Woomera and then drive to inspect the remains where they crash landed. The military and the Australian Government considered the area uninhabited. In fact it was, because the people who lived in the desert were Aborigines and in Australia they only became people after the 1967 referendum. The ones in the way were the Martu and you can read the story of removing them in the interests of not having rockets land on their heads in ‘Cleared out’. You will be crossing Martu country when you drive the Canning Stock Route.
Nowadays an expedition along one of these great outback tracks will be in a well-equipped vehicle descended from Len Beadell’s car of choice, the Land Rover. Car of choice in that there was no choice, until 1954 when Toyota came up with the Landcruiser and spawned the entire genre we enjoy today. Except perhaps the Ford GPW, which was the alternative chosen by Ben Carlin.
You will not find any relics of Carlin’s adventures in the outback because he didn’t go there. But his story will be fascinating to any off-road adventurer. Not one of Ford’s most successful models, the Ford GPW was a wartime inspired amphibious version of the Willys jeep. Slow, cumbersome and unreliable on land and a sitting duck on water, it had very little going for it. Ben Carlin decided it would be a good idea to drive one around the world. So he did.
If you visit Guildford Grammar School on the outskirts of Perth, you will see there on display ‘Half Safe’, the actual car that Ben Carlin drove, and your immediate realisation will be that the name exaggerates the safety. You can read about his trip in ‘Half Safe’ and ‘The other half of Half Safe’. He set off in 1951 and the first question is, why?
The obvious answer is that Len Beadell had not built any highways at that time.
But there is a second question. Why is it that the tremendous and unrepeatable effort to drive a small amphibious car around the world, over 17,000 kilometres on water and 64,000 kilometres on land, crossing oceans and deserts and mountains, is all but forgotten, while Len Beadell’s straight line surveys for outback roads have become legend.
The answer is something we should all remember. Who you are is not a result of what you did.
It really doesn’t matter what you achieve. It is in the how, in a human and not a nuts-and-bolts sense. While Ben Carlin appears to have been a cantankerous loner and difficult to get along with, Len Beadell was good humoured and uncomplaining and dedicated to his family. He could proudly name a dirt track after his wife or daughter or son, and call it a highway. He is the sort of man we would all love to have known, the sort of man us men want to be. He is the stuff of legends.
And he could pull teeth.
Len Beadell images generously supplied by Connie Beadell, Len’s daughter. Exploration has stayed in the family as Connie runs Beadell Tours, a company that offers some amazing 4WD tag a long tours and expeditions. Len’s books and tapes are also still available.
Martin lives in Perth and writes full time. His latest novel ‘How I became the Mr Big of People Smuggling’ was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford award and was published in June 2014 by Fremantle Press. The judges said the book gave the uncanny feeling that it could all be true.