Francis Birtles – Australia’s Greatest Overlander!
Birtles & Stollery in the 'Sundowner' on their way through Outback Qld in July 1928
He is arguably Australia's greatest motoring adventurer and was an acclaimed hero of his time and he really was the first to drive from the UK to Australia - unlike some university students who claimed they were the 'first overland' in the 1950s. Ron and Viv Moon relate his story.
On July the 26th, 1928, the streets of Melbourne were crowded with thousands of people (mostly men actually, going by the photographs of the day), as they waited patiently for their hero to arrive.
When Francis Birtles drove his battered and tired 1925 Bean 14 car, that he affectionately called the 'Sundowner' because of his knack of arriving at sundown at some remote station homestead for dinner, the crowd went wild. Feted at a civil reception soon afterwards, he and his travelling companion succumbed, next day, to the rigors of their trip, not to mention malaria, and spent the next two weeks in hospital.
For Birtles though the nine-month trip from the UK across Europe, the Middle East and Asia to Australia, and then through the outback that he knew so well, was the crowning achievement of his illustrious career.
Born in Melbourne in 1881, Francis Birtles went reluctantly to sea at the age of 15. He jumped ship in Cape Town and enlisted in the Cape Colonial Forces at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa in 1899 and served with an irregular mounted infantry unit until May 1902. He returned to Australia but went back to the Transvaal shortly afterwards, joining as a mounted police officer where his experiences on horse and pushbike, and with a camera, equipped him for his later forays in Australia.
Contracting black water fever he returned to Australia landing in Fremantle where, just after Christmas Day in 1905, he peddled out of Perth on a pushbike to become the first person to bicycle the country from west to east across the Nullarbor, when tracks of any sort, for the most part, were non-existent.
In February 1907 he set off for a second attempt to cross the continent, this time choosing a route further inland. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald of the 6th March 1907 has Birtles' stating,
'... I have made my second attempt to cross the desert and have failed ... I was forced back and had to retreat for lack of water ... During the 240 miles I travelled in the desert country I only found water twice’.
With the temperature around 110°F (about 43°C) and a load of 120lb (54kg) on his bike he had covered more than 500 miles of trackless country east of Laverton in WA, but he was still full of praise for his Dunlop tyres stating, 'Fortunately, neither bike nor Dunlop tyres have given the slightest trouble ...'. He was always one to look after his sponsors!
Almost immediately with the little fame he had gained from those trips, he set out on a new bike to ride around the eastern half of the continent and to write a book on his exploits; Lonely Lands was published in 1909.
With a book behind him and numerous newspaper articles written on him as well as magazine stories by him, Birtles was the most known cyclist of his day. In that same year he set a new record for an west-east crossing, and in 1910-1911 he set off on a complete circumnavigation of the continent.
In 1911 he was accompanied by the cameraman, R. Primmer, from Sydney to Darwin and then, on the way from Perth to Sydney, lowered his cycling record to 31 days. Not bad considering nearly the complete route was dirt, if not just a set of camel pads or cattle tracks. The next year the film, Across Australia, was released, showing scenes of crocodile hunting and Thursday Island pearling amongst others and got rave reviews. By 1912 he had crossed the continent seven times.
In 1912, with Syd Ferguson, a mechanic for the Australian importers of the Brush motorcar, he set out to become the first to drive a car from Perth to Sydney. By now Dunlop Tyres was a near permanent sponsor of his expeditions, but Birtles' wasn't putting all his faith in these new fangled mechanical contraptions; his trusty bike, shod, of course, with Dunlop tyres, was strapped to the back of the heavily loaded vehicle.
A reporter from the Melbourne based The Australasian wrote ' ... the car and its contents presented a strange appearance on the road. The body of the vehicle was almost hidden under nearly half a ton of outfit, including tent, sandmats, shovels, food-boxes, water-bags, guns, a cinematograph camera and Birtles' bicycle.'
Arriving in Sydney, 28 days after their departure from the WA capital (and just 3 days faster than his bicycle ride, which had in fact been 500km longer as it had gone via Adelaide and Melbourne), the pair were hailed as heroes.
In 1913 he set off again from Sydney, this time in a Ford Model T and drove the vehicle from Burketown on the Gulf of Carpentaria through outback Queensland and south to Melbourne. In an article, '3500 Miles Across Australia in a Ford Car', he stated that the Ford averaged 25mpg, required no repairs and averaged 150 miles a day. Birtles also described his method of crossing sandy river beds by '... taking off the mudguards and running boards to give greater clearance ... then get some long sacks, fill these lightly with grass, and fasten on with rope to the tyres. Go gently down the steep banks; on reaching the sand put in low gear, very gently accelerate slowly, watching back wheels do not skid. The car will waddle across in fine style.'
His next adventure in 1914 was with the acclaimed Australian filmmaker, Frank Hurley. They set off in a Model T and drove from Melbourne to Sydney, onto Darwin, down the west coast of Australia to Perth, across the Nullarbor, which by then Birtles knew pretty well, to Adelaide and onto Melbourne.
It sounds easy, but in those days once away from the populated east coast of Australia and the occasional capital city of each state, you were lucky to find even a set of wagon tracks connecting towns or remote far-flung cattle ranches. The result of this trip was the film, Into Australia's Unknown.
The following year he set of on a seven month filming trip from Sydney to Broken Hill, onto Quorn in the Flinders Ranges, before turning north to Cooper Creek. Reaching the Gulf at Normanton, he headed south to Melbourne across outback Queensland. The film, Across Australia in the Tracks of Burke and Wills, opened to audiences on Christmas Day, 1915.
During WW1 and its aftermath, he wandered outback Queensland and Cape York, considered by many still to be frontier type country. Travelling mainly in a Model T and living with the Aboriginal people who he admired and regarded as friends, many of the stories from these days were told in, Battle Fronts of the Outback, published much later in 1935.
In 1917, he joined forces with Malcolm H Ellis and with Birtles brother, Clive, they raced a Maxwell car to a record breaking run between Brisbane and Sydney. Two years later Birtles made another film, Through Australian Wilds, but sadly this and his other epics no longer exist.
In 1920 he married Frances Knight but within two years they were divorced.
In 1921 the Australian government sent him on a trip through the heart of Australia to find a route for a railway line that was to be built through the heart of the continent (in fact it was only completed north of Alice Springs to Darwin in late 2003).
Heavy rains saw Birtles and his mate following the overland telegraph line, the only man-made feature in this vastness at that time, across a flooded landscape. Running low on food and fuel at one point, Birtles unstrapped his trusty bike and peddled into Tennant Creek for supplies. Later, the trip ended in disaster as the vehicle hit a stump near Elsey Station and spilt fuel, which immediately burst into flames and the car exploded. Both Birtles and his companion were badly burnt, but Birtles was not undaunted; he finished his survey by an extensive air foray across the country – probably the first ‘official’ aerial survey in Australia.
In 1924, with Ellis and a pompous English engineer by the name of J D Simpson, Birtles set off to drive non-stop from Sydney to Darwin and back as a promotional trip for a British vehicle, the Bean 14 car.
When they left Sydney, Ellis was to write, (from, 'The Long Lead: Across Australia by Motor Car'), ‘… We moved off at last, the crowd dividing grudgingly ... People rushed out and kissed us or wrung our hands according to their rights and inclinations. ‘Good-bye’ - ‘Pleasant journey’ - ‘Don’t bring home a black wife’ - ‘Be careful of the girls!’... In a minute we were lost in the traffic of Pitt Street.’
It was Birtles first experience with the British-made Bean (which Ellis had dubbed 'Scarlet runner' because of its colour), and the heavily loaded machine, while it broke down a number of times, wasn't all to blame as Simpson had no idea how to drive, nearly killing himself at one time when he crashed into a wash-out and ripping a tyre to shreds at another. The three men bickered relentlessly but somehow they survived the harrowing trip, which saw them at one stage, while crossing the Gulf country, travel just 300km in five days.
Birtles followed that adventure up a few months later by setting a new record from Darwin to Adelaide in an Oldsmobile 30 car. Two years later, in 1926, in a sporty 2-seater version of the Bean 14 Tourer – the car that was to become the Sundowner – Birtles set out to break the record for the Darwin to Melbourne run.
Sponsored by the local distributor, Barlows of Melbourne, the Bean 14 had been rebuilt to Birtles’ own plans. That included drilling holes in the longitudinal chassis rails to reduce weight, and a second fuel tank and heavier springs were fitted. The two headlights were kept as standard, while the mudguards were replaced with lighter simpler units. Brackets were welded onto the outside for gear to be strapped on, and two spare tyres were mounted at the rear.
The route Birtles would take south from Darwin was to Katherine and onto Daly Waters, Newcastle Waters, east to Lake Nash and Djajarra, then south to Boulia, Winton and Bourke to Sydney. From there they'd race to Melbourne on a half reasonable road.
With Alec Barlow as the mechanic, Birtles drove the 5,540km from Darwin to Melbourne via a menagerie of tracks and cattle pads in just 205 hours. They had just four punctures, and Barlow, it was said, didn't even have to lift a spanner for any repairs.
Averaging 16mpg, it was an incredible achievement, especially when you consider that engine radiators in those days, before sealed cooling systems, could use up to six gallons of water every three or four hours, oil consumption for the engine was in the vicinity of a gallon every few hundred miles, while chassis and suspension components needed greasing every day!
By the beginning of 1927 Birtles had completed more than 70 transcontinental crossings but his fame was still growing and his acclaim would have to be today compared to a sporting star, or film actor crossed with a modern day explorer.
The Bean car company was so impressed they took the Sundowner and Birtles to England to put the car on show. Birtles was then asked to drive the latest Bean car from England to Australia, again with M H Ellis, and another companion. The new car was the heavier Bean Imperial Six, soon to be dubbed by Birtles, 'Scrap Iron'.
Leaving London later than originally planned, the party got away in early February 1927 and raced across Europe, climbed the snow filled passes of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria then bogged down in the muddy fields of western Turkey. All the time amongst a host of other mechanical problems, the radiator leaked like a sieve requiring daily repairs. Arrested as spies in eastern Turkey, they were held for a few days before being allowed to continue onto Beirut, where they replaced the third diff in the Imperial before pushing on to Damascus.
In Persia (today’s Iran) one of the party was forced to leave because of dysentery, but by the time Birtles and Ellis got to India they were well behind time, the car was broken and the monsoon had begun. The trip was abandoned and Birtles returned to London.
But already Birtles was planning another attempt on his own in a vehicle he knew well – the Sundowner. He hurriedly rebuilt the car from the ground up, procured some limited help from Bean and sponsorship from Dunlop, Shell and Castrol. On the 19th October 1927 he left Australia House in London, while a small group of well-wishers, including the famed aviator, Bert Hinkler, and the 1927 Miss Australia, Phyliss von Alwyn, waved him off.
He raced through France then slowed as the roads got worse through Yugoslavia and into northern Greece, but he was still ahead of his planned schedule when he arrived at the Shell offices in Athens.
With his experiences of Turkey behind him he shipped the Sundowner and himself to Alexandria in Egypt, crossed the soft sands of the Sinai Peninsula to Palestine and then into Syria. From Damascus he headed east to Baghdad, where he was delayed by British imposed quarantine regulations, before travelling across the border. He was to write about his arrival in Baghdad, in his normal eloquent style '... A swarm of guides and mendicants surrounded the car. I recognised them as descendants of the Forty Thieves, but they had multiplied exceedingly!'
Once in Iran he turned off the main road to Tehran. Blocked by snowdrifts, he cut across on a more direct, but near trackless route, to Isfahan in central Iran where he turned north to Tehran. From this point he tracked east towards Meshed before paralleling the Afghanistan border south into what is now Pakistan.
He was bogged on numerous occasions in sand, near frozen in snowdrifts at least twice, washed downstream in a snow melt flooded river and pursued by bandits. But worse of all he was now suffering from malaria. At Sibi, in modern day Pakistan, he was forced to rest for a couple of weeks before crossing the desert to the Indus River and pushing on to Delhi, where the local Shell agent had given him up for lost.
In Calcutta Francis Birtles met a Canadian, Percy Stollery, who was peddling a bike around the world. Teaming up, and after rebuilding the Sundowner once more, the two intrepid adventurers set off for their crossing of the many channels of the mighty Ganges River, which back then had no bridges across it at all. The man-powered punt they chose at one point almost sank, leaving both Stollery and Birtles soaked and the Bean half submerged. But that was nothing compared to what lay ahead – the Naga Hills – that straddle the border between modern day India and Burma. Here there were no roads and no vehicle had ever dared to try and cross them.
They dug, sweated, and dug some more, as they built a road for most of the way up and over the high mountains, while local native tribesmen carried the extra fuel and oil but downright refused to dig or do anything else. Birtles reversed the gearing on the Bean so the former reverse gear became their only forward, albeit low, gear and built windlasses to winch the Bean up impossible slopes. On one steep section, after removing the tyres and rims, he grooved the brake drums of the driving wheels so he could fit chains to them for more traction on the slippery slopes. Harassed by the mud, the thick jungle and steep countryside, as well as marauding elephants, tigers and rogue water buffalo, the crossing of the mountains – a distance of some 60km, took them 30 days!
They crossed the Irrawaddy River on a raft and then pressed onto Rangoon, where they arrived well behind time and already given up for lost or dead, as well as penniless and exhausted. Dunlop and the Bean Company cabled them money and their exploits south continued.
Timing was everything now and they rushed south towards Singapore, a relatively easy drive after what they had been through, but now their luck ran out. The flooding rains of the monsoon arrived inundating rivers, wiping away long sections of tracks and washing away bridges. Then, in an exhausted state, both men began to suffer again from malaria. Needing rest they found a ferry and shipped their vehicle and themselves from Mergui in southern Burma to Penang in Malaya, a distance of less than 300 miles (500km), where they continued their drive south to Singapore.
In Singapore, courtesy of their sponsors, they loaded themselves and the vehicle onto an oil tanker and sailed for Darwin where they arrived, still both suffering from malaria. At this point an officious Customs official impounded the car until duty was paid, but again Birtles and his travelling companion were broke. A telegram to the Australian Prime Minister released the car and two days later Birtles and his companion headed to Brisbane, Sydney and then Melbourne. It was an anticlimax to the adventures they had already had but they were feted at every town and city along the way. The 25,000km journey from London had taken them nine months and five days.
After that historic trip, Birtles never again attempted such a hard journey again, but he still kept travelling.
In 1929, with Ellis once again, the headed off on an unsuccessful attempt to find the 'lost gold reef' of L.H.B Lasseter. Over the next couple of years Birtles led a number of expeditions searching for gold in outback Australia and in 1934 discovered gold in Arnhem Land, which was to become a fairly lucrative gold mine.
Financially secure with more money than he really needed, in 1935, the same year as he published 'Battlefronts of the Outback', he married his second wife, Nea. For the next couple of years the couple travelled extensively though the outback in Birtles’ self designed Ford Caravan.
Birtles passed away in July 1941, his place in Australia and motoring history assured, but sadly today, he is little known. Depending on which record you believe, he had travelled around Australia, crossed it from north to south and east to west somewhere between 50 and 88 times. His crossing from the UK to Singapore and onto Australia was the forerunner to every other attempt. It was a remarkable series of achievements by anyone’s standard.
The Sundowner, which he donated to the Australian National Museum in 1929, and about 50 years before a national museum even came into existence in Canberra, often takes pride of place in the rambling display halls there. And, in the last few years, a couple of books have been written about him, while his early publications are reprinted (poorly) and are available via the internet; so his name and his achievements will not be so easily forgotten!
Battlefronts of the Outback by F Birtles, 1935.
Francis Birtles - Australian Adventurer, by Warren Brown, 2012
Grit - an Epic Journey across the World, by Peter Wherrett, 2005.
Numerous articles and references to Francis Birtles can be found on the web – just Google his name.
The National Library and National Museum in Canberra have extensive collections on Birtles, while the State Library of NSW and the National Maritime Museum in Sydney have smaller collections.
Pictures courtesy of National Library and the National Museum in Canberra, the State Library of NSW, the National Maritime Museum in Sydney and Dunlop Australia.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon