|58. CLIMATIC CONDITIONS.|
"as these conditions are very favorable just now".
|Lasseter to Arthur Blakeley, 03/02/30.|
Lasseter Country which covers much of Central Australia is arid country, the southern parts may receive as little as 150 millimetres of rain per annum...perhaps. The rainfall and reliability steadily increases as one travels north, about 300 mm at Alice Springs, and if the reef lay somewhere around Tennant Creek as Idriess reckons then Jack and Harry can prospect on a little less than 15 inches per annum as they would understand precipitation.
There are two seasons in the Centre, a cooler dry winter when the sun is north of the equator, and as millions will attest, the recommended travelling and prospecting season. And then there is summer, from October to March. Parts of Lasseter Country lay within the southern tropic and for a couple of days in late December 1930, the sun would have been directly overhead at Illbilla where Taylor sweated and fretted over the missing Pittendrigh and Hamre. Later the same month, a hundred and thirty miles to the south west, in the Petermann Ranges, Lasseter's camels bolted.
Blakeley was well aware of the torrid summer conditions in Central Australia and chafed at the delays in Sydney and Alice Springs, "already we were starting out fully six weeks too late". From October onwards it would be increasingly difficult and quite dangerous to prospect for Lasseter's reef. When the expedition left Alice Springs in late July 1930, Blakeley thought the expedition could stay in the field for ten weeks at the most. After that the expeditions sole means of transport, the Thornycroft truck, would not be able to operate in the intense heat and lack of reliable water would force a return to Alice Springs.
Summer is the wet season and Alice Springs can expect more than three quarters of its annual rainfall between October and March. In keeping with a land of extremes, the rains come in two forms, thunderstorms that may cause local disruption by washing away road works in flash floods, and tropical depressions that may reach far inland to souse the centre with a couple of days of steady rain that can bring all human activity to a halt. The remnants of the first expedition were fortunate in returning to Alice Springs at the end of September. A week later when Blakeley was on his way north to inspect Simon Rieff's gold show, Central Australia's four year drought broke with a vengeance, Blakeley and his mates were held up for several days at Stirling Station waiting for the roads to dry out.
It rained and stormed for a fortnight and completely disrupted Coote's plans to search for Lasseter from Ayers Rock. Weather delayed his departure from Alice Springs by three days and when he arrived at Hell's Airport on the 28th of October he was dismayed to find that Taylor had not yet arrived. He had to wait another nine days to learn that Taylor had been held up for two weeks by flooded creeks, boggy ground and wet camel packs. The young Englishman did a creditable job enduring his first Centralian summer and getting through to Ayers Rock, along with flooding rain and scorching temperatures comes enervating humidity and hordes of mosquitoes.
If one can believe Paul Johns account of the journey through the Petermanns with Lasseter, then it seems that same wet two weeks in early October caused Lasseter to abandon Johns and the floundering camels in swampy country and push on alone and on foot to his reef, He was absent for two days. In the space of a fortnight most of the men of the first expedition, now dispersed as four small groups over much of Central Australia, had experienced considerable disruption to their plans because of the rain. If the Thornycroft had been on the track it would have bogged to the axles. Indeed a land of extremes.
In 1930 there was little to recommend summer travel in Central Australia, whether by vehicle or camel, some parts were entering the fourth year of drought. Yet in early February Lasseter wrote to Arthur Blakeley, Minister for Home and Territories pointing out that, "climatic conditions are most to be considered in despatching a prospecting party to the reef - and as these conditions are very favorable just now, I would like to have your decision in this matter as soon as possible". Lasseter could not have been unaware that February is high summer in the Centre and a ridiculous time to travel or prospect.
The letter may also indicate Lasseter's desperate financial plight, badgering Blakeley to hasten the formation of an exploration party so he could be placed on a lucrative retainer as guide. Three weeks after this letter Lasseter wrote to W. F. Roberts, his business partner, and mentioned that he was expecting the bailiffs in a couple of days, further suggestion that Lasseter was broke and possibly unemployed and anxious to get on a payroll. But surely not on an expedition to Central Australia in February. More by good luck than good management the first C.A.G.E. expedition left Sydney, "in dribs and drabs" in mid July, during the Centre's balmy winter months.
Blakeley could be reasonably certain that rain would not disrupt the journey, and the cooler winter days could make travelling in the Thornycroft occasionally exhilarating, the atmosphere is free of dust haze and the spectacular landmarks of the Western MacDonnell Ranges would have stood out with startling clarity and a sense of being 'just over there'. Nights can be cold to frost and the first camp found Coote grumbling about the freezing temperature, "It was so cold at 3 a.m. that none of us could sleep". Lasseter was unaffected, comfortably ensconced in the locked cab of the Thornycroft.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006