They did what? Bad Day at Barrow Creek | Columns | Gassit Garage
The Northern Territory’s first MLA was nearly DOA.
When the barmaids of Darwin were refused time off to celebrate the end of The Great War in 1918, it was the fiery orator HG Nelson who took up their cause; this action culminated in the Darwin Rebellion, the removal of the NT Administrator John Gilruth and the successful establishment of a seat in the 1922 Australian House of Representatives. And a free beer for HG anytime he broached the bar of any pub, anywhere in the Territory.
About this time HG acquired a Velocette GC3 ‘Colonial’ Model; a lightweight 225cc two-stroke with throttle controlled oil injection and a three-speed gearbox. At 40 years of age HG had spent much of his life as a steam locomotive driver east of the Great Dividing Range and had no experience with horses or camels. Nor, it appears, any familiarity with motorcycles. Having held his seat in the 1925 Federal Election, he was keen to survey his constituency and the Velo was probably chosen for its economy.
After travelling north from Adelaide to Oodnadatta on ‘The Ghan’ and being driven by lorry to Alice Springs, HG finally confronted the Velo. His first foray, an attempt to reach the old gold mining settlement at Arltunga, proved futile due to deep sand drifts, though a 50-mile (80 km) round trip to Jay Creek west of Alice convinced him he could take on the Telegraph Track. At the time, this track was best suited to the camels used by the linesmen, and was rarely used as a thoroughfare. It had never been attempted on a motorcycle.
Perhaps the thought of returning home to his wife and children in distant Pine Creek overwhelmed common sense. Despite much advice to the contrary and seriously underestimating the task ahead, HG prepared for the 770 mile odyssey by strapping a one gallon water bag, a bedroll and bugger all else to the Velo’s carrier.
Old mate Ernie Allchurch tried to dissuade HG but, realising he was committed, could only advise him to stick to the overland telegraph line and stay at repeater stations along the way. HG departed on Friday 23 October 1925 and only 16 miles north of Alice realised he’d lost his tool roll, returning almost all the way back to town to recover what was left of it in the sand. Then the loss of his waterbag necessitated another retreat. In this manner it took two days to reach the Telegraph Station at Ryan’s Well – barely 70 miles north of Alice.
Before leaving on Sunday he sent a message to the Barrow Creek postmaster to expect him the following morning.
When HG hadn’t arrived before dark two days later everyone “along-the-line” feared the worst and search parties were sent south from Barrow Creek and north from Ryan’s Well.
Once the Aboriginal trackers were on the case, HG proved easy to find, as his tracks zigzagged haphazardly, enabling the trackers to take shortcuts. And, according to one report, followed a trail of torn one-pound notes. He was eventually discovered lying in the ashes of his campfire only 13 miles south of Barrow Creek, his mouth congealed with lubricating oil he’d swallowed in desperation. A farewell note to his wife read “a power stronger than the electors has taken a hand in my destiny”, yet HG survived the ordeal , although he didn’t survive the 1934 election. Despite this, his son Jock Nelson later became the first Territory-born NT Administrator.
It was a further two years before a pair of young Victorians – R. McLellan and S. Gordon – riding a 1926 Indian Chief Outfit, claimed to be the first motorcyclists to reach Port Darwin after a 20-day ride from their homes in Melbourne.
By Peter Whitaker