The last horseback explorer

By Ron Moon 12 March 2010
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John Morgan led the last official horse-mounted survey expedition into uncharted areas of the Kimberley.

“IT WAS A PRIVILEGE,” said John Morgan, unassumingly describing his leadership of the 1954 North Kimberley Survey and Mapping Expedition into the then untracked vastness of Australia’s most remote northern frontier. “The thing that struck me was that we were passing through a pristine region generally unknown to white men.”

John’s outstanding field career – which culminated in him becoming the WA surveyor general in 1968 – has had many highlights, but that trip stands out from the rest like a desert jump-up.

Retired since 1984, John has a home with a nice view of Peel Inlet, on the outskirts of Mandurah, near Perth. He’s lived in the Peel–Mandurah region for about 20 years, but spent most of his life at Glen Forrest, in the Darling Range, east of Perth. He was born in 1923 in Balingup, 205 km south of Perth, where his father was the local stationmaster. He joined the Army early in 1942 but 20 months later transferred to the RAAF, in which he completed his pilot training in Canada. Like many other airmen he was recalled to Australia and, at war’s end, as part of the postwar training scheme, he went surveying. His work in WA took him as far afield as Carnarvon and Wyndham, but spent most of his time in the south of the State.

In the early 1950s he spent an isolated two years under canvas in the Rocky Gully area, 300 km south-east of Perth, surveying crown land for soldier-settlement schemes. “We were basically excommunicated to the bush,” John said. “If we were working more than 50–80 miles [80–130 km] from Perth they didn’t want to see you in the office except once every 6–8 months.”

BY THE END OF THE Rocky Gully survey, John’s reputation as someone who could get a job done resulted in his appointment as leader of the 26-man Kimberley expedition, which left Wyndham in the middle of April 1954 with horses, donkeys, four trucks, three 4WDs, a grader and a bulldozer. The party was split into four teams: survey, transport, construction, and a reconnaissance section led by John.

“The country was too rugged for the donkeys and we managed to get a few mules from Karunjie and Gibb River stations – they were big powerful  animals and were pretty good,” he says. But he doesn’t offer much praise for the vehicles. “Those Austin Champs [jeeps] were heavy and the dust would billow up through the cab and the driver would come out after a day’s drive absolutely choked and covered in dust.”

The party had four aims: to explore and survey the area north of Gibb River and Karunjie stations – then the most northerly in the region – and provide an accurate survey transverse from Gibb River station to the coast near Kalumburu; to build a track for vehicle access; to classify all the surrounding country for its suitability as pastoral land; and to fix key points observed from aerial photographs so the region could be accurately mapped.

MOUNTED ON HORSES, JOHN and his small group in the reconnaissance team were often well removed from the other groups, blazing the way through the country. “We still worked like the old explorers,” he says. “We used old chronometers backed up by radio-transmitted time signals and a stopwatch. For quick assessment of distances on horseback we assumed that a horse walks at about 3 miles [4.8 km] per hour.”

In the years after the expedition, John led a number of survey parties into the depths of the Great Sandy Desert  during the geodetic survey of Australia and as part of the establishment of the rocket range at Woomera (see AG 83), which extended to Eighty Mile Beach, south of Broome.

As WA’s surveyor general he worked on a number of government boards, including the National Mapping Council of Australia and the Conservation and Reserves Committee of the Environmental Protection Authority, which was instrumental in recommending the framework for WA national parks and nature reserves.

Three years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of the North Kimberley expedition, a group of six students from Curtin University and others from the Western Australian Institution of Surveyors followed John’s route from Theda station to Kalumburu. But John doesn’t describe the expedition as his biggest legacy. “Looking back, on a professional basis, it was the transition and development of technology from what we had in the early days to today’s high-tech survey equipment and techniques,” he says. “But that wasn’t just me. I happened to be in charge, but I was surrounded by a very competent group of highly trained people. Without them nothing we achieved would have been possible.”

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 88 (Oct – Dec 2007)