|"That Ilbpilla's not worth a tinkers cuss. No make at all after we drained it ~ she's a duffer".|
|Stan O'Grady to Michael Terry at Illbilla waterhole, 25/07/32. 'Sun and Sand', pg.64.|
Waterhole, bush camp and landing ground, situated on the northern slopes of the Ehrenberg Range and the base camp for the first C.A.G.E. expedition from 07/08/30 to 18/09/30. The landing ground, approximately 700 yards square, and "rather rough for the operation of light machines", had been cleared by Bob Buck some three months earlier in preparation for the Mackay expedition, who occupied the camp from 28/05/30 to 25/06/30. This successful aerial mapping expedition and the location of it's base of operations received wide publicity in April 1930, and it's quite likely that press reports influenced the Directors of C.A.G.E. to choose Illbilla as their base in the search for Lasseter's reef.
In Aboriginal mythology Illbilla is the beginning of the Honey ant dreaming track and a site of considerable significance to the Pintubi people and while the water may have been sweet and copious during the dreamtime, in 1930 this isolated waterhole was much abused and frequently drained. Mackay records that the waterhole was situated in a ti-tree gully about one and a half miles from the camp and an adequate supply for the expeditions needs and Buck's camels, the quality of the water was very poor and both Bert Hussey and Bennett became seriously ill with dysentery as a result.
According to Mackay there were approximately 30 Aboriginals of the Pintubi tribe inhabiting the Ehrenberg Ranges in 1930 and Illbilla seems to have been their only water supply, the Aboriginals and the surrounding wildlife would have faced severe competition from Ali Mahomet's and Bob Buck's sixty eight camels. Pastor Albrecht from Hermannsburg arrived at Illbilla on the 6th of October 1930, just a week after the C.A.G.E expedition abandoned the camp site and waterhole, Albrecht in his 1964 manuscript to the Lutheran Almanac mentions that Illbilla rockhole was small at the top and widened with depth with several dead birds, "I am not going to describe the effects this water had on us during the following nights and days".
Phillip Taylor, Paul Johns and Rolfe Entata returned to Illbilla on 15/12/30 to refurbish the aerodrome and bough sheds in preparation for the arrival of Pittendrigh and Hamre who were to continue the search for Lasseter and his gold reef in the Golden Quest II. The aircraft was expected to arrive on 20/12/30 but due to lackadaisical arrangements on Pittendrigh's part in not acquiring appropriate maps or seeking local knowledge, he had apparently mistaken Mount Russell for the Ehrenberg Range and failing to locate the landing ground returned to Alice Springs, running out of fuel and making a forced landing about ten miles north west of Haasts Bluff.
Because of the open ended arrangements, Taylor was forced to give Pittendrigh a number of days grace due to the possibility of bad weather or plane repairs, but by Christmas day 1930 Taylor had decided the airmen were missing and the Civil Aviation authorities should be alerted. Paul Johns was on his way to Hermannsburg the following day and arrived at the mission late on 29/12/30 where he arranged for Pastor Albrecht to contact Carrington the Government Resident in Alice Springs and C.A.G.E. the following day. The R.A.A.F. were ordered to carry out a search for the missing airmen and on the first day of 1931 Eaton and Gerrand were on their way to Central Australia arriving at Illbilla on the 3rd of January.
Illbilla was again a centre of activity as the search for Pittendrigh and Hamre got underway. On the 6th Gerrand damaged his plane while landing at the rough airstrip and was temporarily grounded while waiting for Fred Colson to deliver the replacement tail plane. Meanwhile two more R.A.A.F planes were called into the search and the tenth of the month saw the remarkable sight of four Moth aircraft parked at Illbilla as the pilots and Taylor conferred on a possible sighting of the missing airman near Dashwood Creek, the sighting was confirmed that afternoon and Pittendrigh and Hamre rescued the following day. Gerrand's plane was not repaired until the 15th and Taylor's new instructions were to recover and repair the Golden Quest II. Taylor returned Illbilla on the 6th of February 1931, "There is no water in camp and Johns tells me the soak is going dry, the camels taking all it makes. We are going to have a job collecting sufficient to go on with". Taylor abandoned the search for Lasseter a few days later due to ill health, probably brought on by the putrid water from Illbilla.
Bob Buck arrived at Illbilla on the 15th of March, searching for Lasseter, and found the waterhole nearly dry and the Aboriginals somewhat surly, quite understandable given the abuse of the locale by various expeditions over the past year, the game had been shot out or scared off and the place was bereft of firewood and flyblown. And the water supply had not improved by the time Michael Terry arrived in July 1932, Ben Nicker observed that a few buckets would drain the waterhole and their immediate plans would depend on how quickly the supply made. Stan O'Grady made the unpleasant discovery next morning, there was, "no make at all after we drained it". Terry's expedition was forced to retreat south.
Apparently Lasseter was well aware of the proposed location of the Mackay expedition and in early May 1930 wrote to Mackay cadging a lift and asking to be landed at a specific but unnamed location with supplies and equipment while he pegged out gold leases. Mackay politely declined Lasseter's request pointing out that his expedition was committed to aerial surveying and not prospecting. And at the time of the Mackay and C.A.G.E. expeditions Illbilla was outside the northern boundary of the South West Aboriginal Reserve and not incorporated into this restricted area until 1933. Being a freely accessible area with known water and an aerodrome and the closest known site to the Petermanns with these facilities, may have been attractive to Lasseter who never applied for a permit to enter the reserves, not wanting to test his eligibility due to his past criminal record.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Albrecht, F.W. Lutheran Almanac 1964. Blakeley, F. Dream Millions 58. Coote, E.H. Hell's Airport. 139,142. Idriess. Ion. Lasseter's Last Ride. 38. Terry, Michael. Sun and Sand. 64. (Mackay Expedition. Aerial Survey of Central Australia. S/N A431, C/S 1947/1640, B/C, 68609. N.A.A.)