February 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Lenny Beadell, road artist

By John Harms
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

I am sitting in a 4WD, belting along the dirt road which heads west from Uluru. I am taking it all in: the remoteness, the redness, the harshness. I am excited, and apprehensive. The photographer Dave Callow drives. He has been to the desert country many times. In the back seat is the publisher and writer James Weston. He came for the first time recently, and jumped at the chance to return. We have been invited to a football carnival at Wanarn, an Aboriginal community just beyond the border between the Northern Territory and Western Australia, about 400 kilometres west of Uluru. It is one of the remotest communities on the planet.

We pass The Olgas and head towards Docker River. The road is surprisingly wide, wide enough to pass other vehicles, but highly corrugated and the trip is bumpy and loud. The swags and camera gear and supplies bounce around in the back; teeth almost clatter. The country varies: we see dry spinifex and mulga, stands of desert oak, stunted mallee scrub, stately ghost gums, empty creek beds, sand dunes. Red dust and more red dust; camels, birds and goannas. The road goes on and on, straight, until we finally alter course. The slight change points us directly at an indigo-blue mountain, miles in the distance.

James laughs. "Ah," he says, "some of Lenny's finest work."

I am puzzled.

"Lenny Beadell," James explains, suddenly the expert. "Lenny built all these roads. Thousands of kilometres. Spent his life on a grader. Just sat on the grader and carved out roads."

Dave turns and shouts, "He wasn't just a road-maker, though; he was a road artist."

"He wrote a book about it," James says, "called It's Not About the Grader."

James detects my scepticism. "True," he says. "The great Lenny Beadell. Believed in straight roads. Believed that the road and the vegetation on either side created a frame, like a camera shot, so he put something in the shot. Most of his roads head towards some mountain, for miles. Then, just as you're getting there, he veers you away and points you at another one."

I still have my doubts.

Some time later, when we veer left, an ancient peak appears in the distance. James chortles. "More genius from Lenny."

After four hours, we drive over the bone-dry Docker River bed and cross into Western Australia, past the community of Warrakurna and the Giles Weather Station. In the late afternoon, Dave heads off the road and we find a sandy, wooded spot to camp. We light a fire, boil the billy and cook stew, just as Lenny would have, day in, day out.

The next morning, we drive further west to Wanarn, to the footy carnival. Teams have travelled here, on Lenny's roads, from as far as Kiwirrkurra, 700 kilometres away. The winners come from Kintore, on the Sandy Blight Road, which we take on our return trip. It looks like a farm track: two tyre furrows with grass growing in between. We have six hours to travel 300 kilometres north. When we hit the stony country, the 4WD crawls and is tossed about. Then we strike the sand-dune country, where Dave is clearly concerned about getting bogged. Eventually, we reach the road to Alice and race to make the plane.

Back home, I hunt for Lenny Beadell. I find out he died in 1995, and that my companions were right: he really did build the roads in the Centre, most famously the Gunbarrel Highway, and he did write about his adventures. I contact his wife, Anne, who sends me all six of his books. None of them is called It's Not About the Grader. In the first, Too Long in the Bush, he describes how he led a road-building team for many years. I learn that he wasn't the grader driver at all (that was Grader Garbot). After serving in the army at the end of World War II, Beadell, a surveyor, chose to remain in the force. During the '50s, he was commissioned by the federal government to help find a suitable site for a rocket range and, once Woomera and surrounds were recommended, to build a network of roads to support the site. He soon realised there was a vast area of central and western Australia which was inaccessible and could be opened up to vehicles.

The Gunbarrel Highway, his first major project, joined Victory Downs station, on the Stuart Highway near the South Australian border, with Carnegie station, 1500 kilometres to the west. But there are numerous other roads, all isolated, which traverse the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts. As one road was completed, Len Beadell would suggest another project.

He called his team The Gunbarrel Road Construction Party. Each day was pretty much the same: he would continue surveying out ahead and would flash a mirror back towards the bulldozer driver, to give him a marker. The dozer would knock down everything in a path directly at that mirror. Once the trees, scrub and grass were cleared, Grader Garbot would follow, creating a basic road. Others would clear up the hazardous roots and branches jutting out of the road.

There were always problems, and sometimes near-disasters. Once, he left the group to survey some far-off territory and, running short of water, almost perished. But he thrived on solving problems in the middle of nowhere with clever thinking and an impressive knowledge of physics, engineering and astronomy. He was a whiz at finding out his precise location by astrofix; the Global Positioning System has demonstrated the accuracy of his surveys, and American astronomers named an asteroid after him in recognition of his work. He also acted as the Construction Party's dentist (his books suggest he had a fascination with bush dentistry).

Lenny Beadell loved naming geographical features and the roads and junctions themselves, often after members of his family, and many of his famous signposts and markers survive. He did love straight roads - hence the Gunbarrel Highway - and he did try to direct his roads towards a mountain. "He called it his ‘road-beautification scheme'," Anne tells me. "Sometimes, if there was a beautiful ghost gum, he would send the road around it." He once put a kink in a road to save some eggs in an emu's nest. (The spot is called Emu Egg Bend. Tooth Creek is named after a pain-relieving extraction.)

Although he believed his work was worthwhile, no self-importance exists in his writing. Indeed, his books convey a terrific sense of humour: a playfulness mixed with a sense of commitment to the national interest, and the disposition of an eccentric man in hobnail boots and khaki shorts, on a Boy's Own adventure. He came to know many of the Indigenous people of the outback; for some, he was the first white man they'd seen, and his accounts of these meetings are fascinating.

Anne and his three children didn't see as much of him as they would have liked over the years, and he hints at feeling a little guilty about that. But the magnificent country won him over; whenever he went to Adelaide, he would look forward to returning to the red dust. "Such things as the memory of one vivid sunset," he wrote, "is enough to keep an explorer going long after regard for personal comfort has been abandoned."

Those who have slept in a swag just off one of his roads know exactly what he meant. Now, when a bend brings into view a beautiful distant peak, I will happily say, "Lenny Beadell: road artist."

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