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Serendipity in the Never Never | Columns | Gassit Garage

A surreal encounter on the track between Spencer Gulf and Beagle Gulf

It was nothing more than a hankering for adventure that took a couple of young bloods from the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn on a coast-to-coast journey from Adelaide to Darwin. By all accounts no one had attempted a motorised crossing since Harry Dutton and Murray Aunger’s 25hp Talbot had succeeded in 1908.

Since then, The Ghan rail line had pushed north to Oodnadatta, from where Alice Springs was a four-day camel trek further north; after that only the Overland Telegraph provided any indication of civilisation on the long trackless journey to Darwin.

Stewart Gordon and Russell McLellan had initially intended to travel by automobile but, with a little prompting from the Indian Motor Cycle distributors, Ferguson and Murphy Ltd, they decided the recently released 1200cc V-Twin Indian Super Chief with Goulding ‘Cumfit’ sidecar was better suited to their plight. Especially when offered a plentiful supply of Goodyear Balloon tyres.

By 1926 the road between Melbourne and Adelaide had been ridden in less than a single day, though it appears Gordon and McLellan took a more leisurely ride, followed by an even more leisurely tour of the City of Churches while stocking up with tinned provisions and a two-gallon petrol can.

North of Port Augusta very few people travelled other than by rail, though The Ghan itself was seldom booked out. The rail line was also a potential lifeline for Gordon and McLellan, but once past Oodnadatta they would be on their own.

As it eventuated, it wasn’t the city slickers who required help; on reaching Bloods Creek they encountered a miner who had just blown his hand off with dynamite. McLellan provided the necessary first aid and relayed the patient south, back to Oodnadatta.

The boys eventually arrived in Alice Springs and relaxed in preparation for what would undoubtedly be the most arduous leg of their journey, which they commenced on
18 September 1926.

You can imagine their surprise encountering rain for the first time on their odyssey; instead of sand, the track turned to sticky black soil on the western edges of the vast Barkly Tableland.

Their surprise turned to astonishment when, on one of the innumerable occasions they had to extricate the outfit from the gluelike morass, a couple of motorcyclists slid to a stop beside them. In an uncanny coincidence, two British-Australian Telegraph Company employees based in Darwin – Bruce Sullivan and Eddie Jacobs – had decided on a holiday in Melbourne. Their choice of transport? A pair of Indian Scouts.

Sullivan and Jacobs may have been equally gobsmacked, though it’s likely they knew the outfit was headed their way.

Although the exact date the boys reached their destination varies according to which newspaper you read, it was widely acknowledged this was “the first occasion on which a motorbicycle with side car has reached Darwin”.

The Melbourne newspapers stated that Gordon and McLellan were “the first to ride from Adelaide to Darwin by motorcycle”, though the lads themselves made no such claim. Nor did they claim to attempt a record on the return journey, because next we learn of their arrival in Sydney in mid-November – more than six weeks later – having covered a total of 9173km.

This was, of course, a severe test for the tyres. However, the Goodyears came through with flying colours. In fact both the machine and the tyres were reported to be in “a condition of which the men are proud”.

And, as far as the press was concerned, that’s the last we hear of two blokes who survived what was undoubtedly an epic outback adventure.

It seems their return home passed unheralded. 

  WORDS Peter Whitaker

As published in AMCN Mag 67 No 25