written by Connie Sue Beadell in January 2012
As a young girl venturing out into the remote desert regions of Australia with my family, I knew that the stars were much more than pretty twinkling lights. My brother, sister and I had grown up with fascinating stories that our father, desert surveyor Len Beadell, told of his adventures in the Australian bush, reading the stars with his theodolite and doing astrofixes to find out where he was in amongst a million square miles of scrub in order to make 6,500 thousand kms of road during the 1950’s and 60’s. Roads with quirky names like Gunbarrel Highway and those named after us, the Connie Sue Highway, Gary Highway and Jackie Junction. In a "Gibber Gabber" interview in 1952 (the local Woomera newspaper) Lennie had said that he never got lost in the bush because he could find his way by the aid of the stars. He had also joked that he went around in circles if it was cloudy and rainy.
Making roads in the desert is no small thing, especially before the days of modern 4WD’s and GPS’s. Len had a small party of men that he called the "Gunbarrel Road Construction Party" for a bit of fun. They made these roads in the harshest conditions possible. From Coober Pedy in the east, the Transcontinental Railway line in the south, "Carnegie" cattle station in the west and areas north of Alice Springs he made his roads, this after years already spent surveying in New Guinea during WWII. Shortly after the war ended he was asked to start the surveys for the Woomera Rocket Range, and later the atomic sites of Emu and Maralinga. In a nutshell his early desert roads then criss-crossed the north-west centreline of fire for the rockets from Woomera and were for access into remote country for the placement of instruments and recovery of wreckage (the rockets did not always go where they were supposed to). Also necessary was the construction of weather stations to provide atmospheric data. As the atomic program in Australia wound down the world-wide Geodetic Survey was in full swing to map the earth’s surface more accurately, so Len and his team were ideally placed to assist other surveyors in getting into country that very few had ever travelled into before. The stars made it all possible.
For Len, his astrofixes were the background for his entire work in the desert, as he put it, to "....handle a million square miles of unbroken horizons of sandhills to the skyline....". Star patterns are divided into constellations with individual stars named with Greek letters then the name of the constellation in which it falls, for example Alpha Centauri (any "Lost in Space" fan will have heard of that one). This star is the closest to earth at 4.3 light years away which is still very far away indeed, the distance to the moon from the earth a fraction in comparison. Each star has a celestial co-ordinate like a Latitude & Longitude on earth. Len would read pairs of stars at night with his theodolite in order to determine the angle of the star from the horizon. For latitude he would choose stars in the northern and southern skies, and for longitude he would look east and west. The stars he most wanted were about 40 degrees up from the horizon as these were the easiest to read with his theodolite. Using pairs of stars helped to correct for any distortions in the readings and the more pairs he used then the more accurate his mean result. Once he had all the readings he required, with the additional use of a Nautical Almanac and time signals, he would do pages of sums to determine his position; just as well he was pretty good at maths! For his Woomera Rocket Range surveys he used around 20 stars each for Latitude and Longitude to determine a fix, which amounted to a lot of calculations but they gave him a much more accurate position. Time signals were required during Longitude readings, which Len received via radio from Honolulu, and when accuracy was paramount he even compensated for the time it took for the radio signals to reach him which Len was told was approximately 0.08 seconds. For some of his surveys he only needed a few star fixes with latitude readings also possible during the day using the sun.
William Frederick Rudall was a surveyor in the late 1890’s, well before Len’s day with satellites, GPS’s and 4WD’s unheard of. He was only one amongst a very special group of hardy explorers who over the years travelled into remote corners of the deserts on camels and horses in order to find out what was out there. No-one knew initially but there were plenty of guesses made and the alluring thought of rich gold deposits spurred on many a hopeful expedition sponsor! Rudall’s observations were particularly accurate, recorded in journals that he kept while exploring. One of Rudall’s expeditions involved looking for 2 lost men from the Calvert Exploring Expedition (who were later found dead from thirst). The journal from this search, near what is now called the Rudall River National Park in Western Australia, contains a passage in which he relates the basic method that he used to find his latitude using what he called a telescope. Rudall stated that he observed up to 6 stars at a time to take an average reading for latitude. He described on 22 Dec 1896 the stars that he used, namely in the southern sky one called Canopus (Alpha Carinae) plus 2 northern stars called Capella (Alpha Aurigae) and nearby Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri). Gamma Hydri in the south and Alpha Arietis in the north were other common stars that he used on that expedition, most of which were stars that Len also commonly used over 50 years later. To further assist Rudall in keeping track of his location he measured his camels’ steps before departing in order to estimate the distance that they travelled each day. No odometers on a camel!
For me, family desert trips dating back to the mid-70’s included lessons on the stars. We would look up into a brilliant clear night sky for hours and learn about the constellations and their main stars, including the Southern Cross and how you can use it to find south. We also learnt how to use it to tell the time, a neat party trick that uses some of the physics of the solar system to determine the time which is then adapted for your longitude. Finding south is of course something that everyone travelling in remote areas should know, information that could potentially save your life one day. Nowadays, Mick and I take tag-a-long tours out into the desert to introduce people to the country that Len, the early explorers before him, and age-old tribes of Aborigines travelled using the stars as their guide.
Connie Sue Beadell
Copyright : 2012
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