LEN BEADELL

1923 - 1995

 

 

 

 

 

 

Len Beadell (our thanks to Anne Beadell for this photo of Len)
Len Beadell - Courtesy Anne Beadell

 

 

Len Beadell has been rightly called the 'last great Australian explorer.' With a small team of men, Len helped to open up vast areas of the outback by putting through unsealed roads.

Len was born in Sydney in 1923 and developed an interest in surveying early in life. His scout master (John Richmond) was a surveyor and took his troop on weekend excursions around the Sydney area. Len proved to be a more than competent student when it came to survey work and it was during these weekend expeditions that Len first developed his abiding affection for the bush.

When Len finished school he was lucky, as John Richmond managed to get him a temporary position with the Sydney Water Board doing what Len loved most - survey work. Len could hardly believe his luck as he was now being paid to do the thing he loved most.

 

One thing that was to hang over Len like a black cloud was his failure to pass his English exams at school. This was the cause of his being refused registration as a surveyor and it took him ten years and a re-sit of the English test to finally get the papers he needed.

At the time Len finished school the Second World War was just starting and in 1941 he was called up for active service. Initially he served with a transport section but in 1942 he was transferred to the 2nd Australian Field Survey Co.

In October 1942 Len was sent to New Guinea with the 8th Field Survey Section AIF. Here Len suffered a number of hardships and contracted malaria, dengue fever and scabies but he never lost his sense of humour.

After the war Len was a member of a CSIRO expedition to the Alligator River in Arnhem Land and spent 12 months surveying the Northern Territory. Len was persuaded to stay on with the army for another 12 months and in 1946 he began searching for a site for a proposed rocket testing range. The site he eventually chose was to become the town of Woomera.

Len was discharged from the army in October 1948 but was then asked to take part in a 'most secret' project to locate a site for atomic weapons testing. For this he selected Dingo and Emu clay pans, one for the landing field and the other as a test site. The first atomic test code named 'Totem 1' took place on October 15th 1953. A second test took place at this site before it was decided to move the tests closer to the route taken by the Indian-Pacific rail line. Len was again asked to select a location and this was to become known to the world as Maralinga - Aboriginal for thunder. 7 more atomic bombs were exploded at this site.

Len was now to go on and build roads through the test sites from 1955 to 1963. By the time he and his small team had finished they had established a vast network of outback highways totalling around 6,000 kilometres - most of which still exist today.

The job was done in harsh remote conditions with no easy medical assistance and the members of the construction party had to be self reliant and very hardy individuals. In one of his films Len relates the story of how he had to learn to be a dentist for his road crew. Many years after he first learnt how to extract teeth, he still remembered in great detail the technical terms and procedure he used.

Len went on long lonely reconnaissance trips far ahead of the construction team, to find a suitable route for the roads. Often he would guide the bulldozer to him by flashing a mirror.

 

On occasion he came very close to not making it back to camp due to vehicle problems and lack of water. On one trip his Land Rover broke down and he had to wait 4 weeks to be rescued. Len's work not only opened up the outback but his suggestions for modifications to the Land Rovers he and his team used, led to a number of improvements in the design of these vehicles.

Len's roads were usually built as straight as possible and this led to the naming of the 'Gunbarrel Highway' . The ''Gunbarrel' was completed in 1958. Len was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1959 for his work on the 'Gunbarrel'. which ended up stretching 1,600 kilometres. Len said of this initial project:

 

Len Beadell's art
An example of Len's art

 

Constructing a road
Constructing a road

 

 

'I got my little party of six together - bulldozer driver, grader driver, a cook, and me, long distance supply driver, and I call them "the Gunbarrel road construction party" as a joke because we decided we'd want to make Australia...keep Australia looking tidy and neat. I decided when possible to make straight roads.'

The next project was Sandy Blight Junction Road. This road has more than a few bends in it as Len steered it around large stands of desert trees which he sought to preserve.

When building the next section of road (Sandy Blight Junction to the Canning stock route) the grader broke down and had to be towed - at 5 kilometres an hour - to Giles, over 800 kilometres away. This would have to rate as the longest, slowest tow in Australian history.

Len wrote six books about his experiences and also made a couple of films. 'Too Long in the Bush', 'Beating about the bush' and Len's others works are fascinating reading and should be on everyone's 'must read' list.

 

 

The Anne Beadell Highway was named in honour of Len's wife whom he married in 1961. In 1962 Anne with their 5 month old daughter Connia Sue, joined Len on a 5 month long exploratory trek from Warburton to determine the course of the next road. The Connie Sue and Gary Highways were to follow (both named after Len's children.) Anne was later interviewed about this trip and said:

'It was love at first sight, I suppose, if there is such a thing. And we were married the following year. Our baby arrived not long after, the same year, and we had at that time decided I must go out there and see what the work was like. The last thing I had to get was permission from my mother, because I was taking away her first, beautiful grandchild. I said, "Well, I'm going, Mum. That's it." Connie just rattled around in the back of the Land Rover or sat on our seats.'

Len completed building his roads in 1963 and continued working for the W.R.E. until 1967. From 1964 Len had to be put on light duties as he contracted hepatitis B while working at Woomera and was very sick for almost 3 years.

 

 

Len Beadell
Mount Beadell - Courtesy gladysclancy

 

Len spent his 'retirement' taking people into the areas he had opened up as well as giving more than 900 inspirational talks about his adventures.

In 1987 Len became a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Mining Surveyors (Aust.) and in 1988 Len was awarded the Order of Australia.

Len passed away in 1995. A memorial was erected through the combined efforts of four-wheel drive clubs from every Australian state at Mt. Beadell on the Gunbarrel Highway. On the 12th of May 1996 - one year after Len's death - 163 people with 71 vehicles attended the memorial's unveiling ceremony.

Today the Great Central Road has superseded some of Len's original tracks but 4 wheel drive clubs and others who enjoy spending time in Len's country, regularly make excursions to the far outback to travel again the roads made by Australia's last great explorer.

Visit http://www.beadell.com.au for information on how to get copies of Len's books and films.

Len's Books:

Too Long In The Bush
Blast the Bush
Bush Bashers
Still In The Bush
Beating About The Bush
End Of An Era
Outback Highways (A compilation)
Around The World In 80 Delays: A Traveller's Tale (written in 1967 but unpublished until 1997).

Len's biography, written by Mark Shephard is titled 'A Lifetime In The Bush' is an excellent read and contains a number of glimpses of Len's life that have until now been a mystery.

Len has had 2 streets named after him as well as an asteroid, a mallee tree, a college house, a library and an explorers club. Len may be gone but he and his work are far from forgotten.

We think the following quote sums up Len's character and his love for the outback:

'As a raconteur Len had his audience's ribs aching with laughter with his droll, "bushie", understated delivery. He was at his best though, in the desert he loved. With a group of four wheel drive enthusiasts sitting around the warmth and glow of a mulga campfire, surrounded by the eerie ghostlike shapes of the desert oaks, he would recall with uncanny detail the highs and lows of his years in the great outback.'

 

Chronology

 

1923 - Born April 21st.

1928 - Attended Gladesville Public School.

1930 - Attended Burwood Public School.

1939 - Finished school at Sydney Grammar School.

1940 - Surveyor for the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board.

1941 - Joined the army and serves with a transport section.

1942 - Joins the 2nd Australian Field Survey Company AIF.

1942 - Sailed to New Guinea with the 8th Field Survey Section in October.

1943 - Returned to Australia.

1945 - Back in New Guinea with the 3rd Field Survey Company.

1946 - Surveyor on an expedition to the Darwin-Katherine region of the Northern Territory

1947 - Led a surveying team in the central desert area of South Australia searching for a site for a proposed rocket testing range.

1948 - Discharged from the army.

1949 - Began surveying for the Long Range Weapons Establishment in August.

1952 - Atomic bomb test site chosen.

1953 - Period of road building goes on until 1963.

1961 - Married Anne.

1962 - Anne and Connie Sue (aged 5 months) join Len on a surveying expedition.

1964 - Len contracts hepatitis B at Woomera.

1967 - Finished working with the W.R.E.

1987 - Made a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Mining Surveyors (Aust.).

1988 - Awarded the Order of Australia.

1995 - Died May 12th.

 

Links to more information:

 

Len Beadell
Len Beadell, Books and Tapes.
Len Beadell

 

 

 

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