169. LOGISTICS and ORGANISATION.
"None of them knew much about organising such an expedition".
Blakiston Houston Memoirs. 55. 

 

In the military sense, the art and science of moving, catering for and supplying troops and equipment, and quite applicable to exploration parties and prospecting expeditions. One couldn't go past that great opening line in chapter two of Dream Millions, "The party left in dribs and drabs, but everything had been carefully planned", as an introduction to the organisation of the Company and logistics of the two expeditions in the search for Lasseter's Reef. Considering the results, it causes one to look a little more critically at the usual story about the first Expedition being the best equipped and organised to date in the search for gold in central Australia. 

That story started with Bailey and Idriess and reluctantly agreed to by Blakeley, after all he could hardly gainsay a best selling author and wide public perception that the first expedition wanted for nothing by way of equipment and expertise. But Blakeley had early doubts about the practicality of the Thornycroft truck and definitely did not want an aircraft involved in the search, he scoffed at the failure of the expensive and heavy radio and was concerned at the incompatibility of certain members of the party. The reader of Blakeley's narrative is left with the impression that the leader of the Expedition did not have a lot of choice in the selection of personnel and equipment, and he admitted to knowing nothing about Company organisation, but that may have been blissful ignorance.

The first obvious failure in logistics occurred at Alice Springs when Blakeley was forced to take on Freddy Colson and his vehicles to handle the transport of spare fuel, water, supplies and seven men. It had been blithely assumed in Sydney that the Thornycroft would carry the lot to Illbilla, and the thought of the Thornycroft piled high with poorly sorted supplies and seven grubby prospectors is worthy of a 'Ned and his Neddy' cartoon. Not one wit of thought had been given to the ground transport requirements from Alice Springs onwards. This serious oversight had long term consequences for the Company and it comes as no surprise to find Coote involved, "A Transport committee was formed with myself as chairman".

Coote was interested in only one form of transport and that was something aerial with himself flying it. Coote let slip the inference in a Broken Hill interview that the Thornycroft and men were there to support the aircraft in the search for the reef. It is quite likely that Coote assumed Blakeley would take care of the ground transport from Alice Springs onward, and he did in a fashion, by hiring Fred Colson and his truck and sedan.

It was extraordinarily hypocritical of Coote to castigate Blakeley for hiring the extra transport, his only point of issue being that Colson was not a shareholder and therefore not eligible to travel with the Expedition. Coote offers no alternative to the inadequate transport and absolves himself of the responsibility for the initial problem, as usual with Coote it is always somebody else's fault. But the Company did have a man with some expertise in such matters on it's books, Captain Blakiston-Houston.

Sandhurst trained and an officer in a distinguished British regiment with a laudable war record, responsible for organising parts of the British assaults on Mount Everest, widely travelled and now Aide de Camp to the Governor General. The Captain knew a thing or two about logistics and organising expeditions, but he was not consulted until the last minute, and he kept a low profile because of his vice Regal connections, besides the loud mouthed 'Chairman of the Transport Committee could sink or swim by his own abilities, the Captain observed in his memoirs that, "None of them knew much about organising such an expedition".  

Blakiston Houston also noted that the expedition had not bothered to acquire the latest maps and they missed the train to Broken Hill by half an hour. With very British understatement the Captain expressed his annoyance at this inroads into his furlough and made his own way to Alice Springs via Melbourne and Adelaide and wisely declined the offer to fly to the Centre with Coote. It was only in Alice Springs when the expeditions transport problems appeared insurmountable that the Captain was able to persuade the pig headed and obviously inexperienced Blakeley that the Expeditions equipment and supplies should be packed in detail and not in bulk, which causes one to ponder the depth of Blakeley's experience with camels, perhaps not much.

Repacking and sorting supplies cost the Expedition an extra two days in Alice Springs and the Captains hand in reorganising this part of the expedition is widely acknowledged, Idriess noted that, "The trucks were loaded scientifically. Houston was the most cheerful worker", and Blakeley acknowledged, "it had to be thought out first, and, because of this, I had Captain Houston double-check everything. Nothing was left to chance". No doubt the Captain wondered why all the thinking and double checking hadn't been done in Sydney for chance would surely prevail after Alice Springs.

LASSETERIA

R.Ross. 1999-2006

Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions. 6,7.  Blakiston-Houston Memoirs. 55.