Over the past few years I have taken fellow travellers out to the grave site of the Page Family and told the story of the their fatal summer holidays of 1963. The article below was recently published by Stephen Orr on ancestors in England hearing of the Outback floods and the link with the Page family.
In late December 1963, 48-year-old Ernest Page gathered his wife, Emma, 45, and two sons, Douglas, 12, and Gordon, 10, and set off in search of a new life. The family left their home in Marree, 685km north of Adelaide, and drove north in their 1957 Ford Customline. The English migrant had just quit his job after a run-in with his boss. Ernie could be hot-headed, and he'd had enough of life in Marree.
The Outback town might seem a strange place to find a British migrant who had arrived in South Australia just four years before from the cool and pleasant woodland setting of Shadoxhurst (3 St Peters Way, Shodoxhurst, Ashford Kent.1). But for Ernie, Australia was his dream. For three years, he'd been forced to wait while his application to become a Ten-pound Pom was assessed. His patience paid off and full of anticipation he set off for Adelaide aboard the liner Orion, with Emma, Douglas, Gordon, eldest son Robert, 15, and older daughter Judy and her fiancé, John Pilcher. Judy and John married soon after arriving, bought a house and settled in the suburbs where they would eventually raise their daughter Avril and two sons Scott and Ian1. But whatever Ernie was looking for in his new country, he didn't find it in the capital. While Judy and John stayed in Adelaide, the rest of the family set off for Marree after just a year.
Today the town is only a ghost of what it used to be. Its deserted railway station reminds visitors of days when it was a major railhead for moving cattle south, and later, a break-of-gauge stop on the old Ghan line. The Pages stayed in Marree for three years, Ernie working as a mechanic, Emma caring for the kids, who went to the local school. There are still locals who remember the two younger boys, pale faced, and big-boned, embracing their new life. Robert, then 19, was jackarooing on Clifton Hills Station, 300km north of Marree. He had decided not to stay with his family but to embrace the new challenges, and possibilities, of life in the Outback.
In September 1963 the Pages briefly returned to Adelaide to visit Judy and John. Then they headed back to Marree, and the journey that Ernie was planning in his head. Perpetually restless, fed up with his job, he had decided it was time to move on. Birdsville in Queensland, perhaps, or further north. No one can be sure.
The desert was waiting for them.
It was summer. The Pages drove north into the heart of this unforgiving country: sand, coolibahs and melaleucas, gibber plains and temperatures that regularly soared past the old century, rough roads and tracks that could blow away in a matter of days, or hours. Ernie had bought his Customline under hire purchase from Pointon's Garage in Port Augusta. It was a big V8 that could average 80km/h on the open road. He had packed plenty of food and several spare jerry-cans of water for the trip. As they headed north they passed Lake Harry and crossed the Clayton River. To their east was the as-yet undiscovered Moomba gas field, and Big Lake, Gidgealpa and Namur, and to their west, the vast dry expanse of Lake Eyre South and North. Judy, newly wed to Pilcher, stayed behind in Adelaide.
Judy had died of cancer in 2005, leaving behind three children. For Avril, whose surname became Howard when she married, the events that followed that fateful shift from Marree still reverberate. Ernie, she recalls, "was always wanting to seek better for his family". Despite the fact that her mother seldom discussed her own parents and brothers, she had got the impression that "Ernest was a man who wouldn't be told", who had moved his family half-way around the world in search of a new beginning, and opportunities.
As the Page family drove north late in 1963, their eldest son, Robert, was heading south to Marree for Christmas. He had managed to arrange a lift with Noel Glass, one of five drivers then registered with the Post Master General to deliver mail along the Birdsville Track. Glass drove for Pat Smith, who had bought the run from Tom Kruse, who himself had transported mail, fuel, medicine and general freight between Birdsville and Marree from 1936 to 1957. Kruse is well-known today because of the 1954 John Heyer documentary The Back of Beyond, which followed a typical journey along the Birdsville Track, showcasing the characters and situations Kruse met along the way.
As Glass and Page approached Etadunna, 90 minutes north of Marree, Robert looked at a vehicle approaching them from the opposite direction and said: "That looks like the old man's car." Glass slowed down and both parties stopped to greet each other. Robert hadn't known anything about his father's decision to head north. Later, Glass said: "At the time you had to stop and open a gate, so Ernie pulls up and they both abuse each other for not letting each other know what was happening. So after all the talk, the lad threw his swag on the trailer and away they went." The Pages thanked Glass and the family of five set off, soon arriving and crossing the Cooper Creek on a punt manned by Ernie Pake, the last man to see them alive. They drove north, into the night.
It was, and is, hard country. Vast, open stretches of nothing, punctuated by the occasional tree. Howard returned to this country last year to retrace her grand¬parents' journey. "It was very hard when we went up in the Prado so I couldn't imagine what it'd be like in the old Ford with the trailer behind."
Ernie was taking a leap of faith: Emma, hoping they were doing the right thing; Robert, offering advice, and the boys, silent, watching, wondering. Howard tried to imagine what it would have been like. "I was just thinking about what it would've been like for them driving up there," she says of her own journey. "It wasn't even that hot for us. I'd think about it and I'd find myself getting quite emotional."
At some point as they drove through the night Ernie took a wrong turn. Maybe Robert pointed this out, but Ernie must have thought he was heading in the right direction. The track he took might have been one left by a French mining survey company that had been working in the area, or from the federal government's Bureau of Mineral Resources, which had surveyed the area in late 1963. They drove on and on, across the edge of the Sturt Stony Desert. All they would have heard was the motor of their "Big V" and the stones under their tyres.
It was the stones that caused the trouble. The "gibbers", the pebble-sized rocks that carpeted the desert, soon damaged a custom-fitted bar that Ernie had welded onto his gearbox. Catastrophically, this meant that he couldn't change gears, and that the engine was stuck in second.
The next morning Robert tried, unsuccessfully, to help his father repair the bar. They knew that if they had to continue like this they would soon use all of their fuel. By now they must have known they were in trouble - lost, broken, or at least breaking, down, low on supplies. They spent a few hours beside their car, sheltering from the heat, fretting, then set off later that evening. Ernie drove through the night, the car stuck in second, and the inevitable happened - they ran out of fuel. By now they were back on the Diamantina floodplain, not far from Deadman's Sandhill.
Ernie and Robert noticed a windmill a few kilometres away at Turkey's Nest Dam and set off with a four-gallon drum which they filled. Then they used a long stick to help carry it back. At the car thoughts were turning to Christmas. It was becoming apparent there would be no festive celebrations. As they sat beside the Customline, exhausting the last of their food and water, the reality of their situation was dawning. As if sensing something, their cat had already wandered off.
In retrospect it seems that Ernie Page, who had fallen out with his boss in Marree, rushed his decision to leave the small town. In doing so he left unprepared for a journey through some of Australia's harshest country. Yes, he did have several spare jerry cans full of water, but not enough in case something went wrong. Yes, he did stay with his car for two days, but then made the fatal mistake of striking out into the desert.
"Emma, with the two little boys," Howard says, evoking the tragic scene, "would've just been fretting. They'd been there for two days and must have thought no one was coming."
They rested in the shade of their car for those days before setting out for help. It's likely that Ernie, perhaps persuaded by Robert who knew the area, decided their best chance was to try to return to Clifton Hills. Ernie had made no attempt to take the tarp off his trailer and make a shelter. As they set off, they left behind a radiator full of water. Later, Noel Glass remembered: "Ernie worked at Marree and would tell people that if they got lost or stranded to stay with their car, and yet he broke his own rule. That country is very unforgiving."
Perhaps Ernie felt he had no choice but to start walking. He hadn't told anyone about his plans. No one was expecting them at Birdsville. He didn't cross paths with other travellers who might have raised the alarm because no one was on the track during the holidays: no travellers, surveyors, mail runs: not a soul.
During that day the family managed to walk about 30km in the blazing heat. They meandered, constantly reassessing their path, their direction, looking for landmarks that didn't exist. At some point, probably on Boxing Day, or perhaps the day after, the Pages sat down to rest under the coolibah tree where their bodies were eventually found. By then they were probably too tired, and dehydrated, to go on.
Australians first became aware of the Page family on New Year's Day, 1964. Details were sketchy, but it was reported that a family of British migrants had gone missing in the Outback. A note had been found in the family's abandoned car: "The Page Family of Marree. Ran out of Petrel. Have only sufficient water for two days. December 24."
In the depths of the summer holidays there were few police to search or media to report on the incident. Radio communication was basic and unreliable and there were problems getting searchers to such a remote location, especially in view of heavy, unseasonable flooding along the Diamantina River and Warburton Creek.
After a two-day search the bodies of Ernie, Emma, Gordon and Douglas were found near Deadman's Sandhill, on a side track off the Birdsville Track. The two boys had taken off most of their clothing. The bodies of Emma, Ernie and Gordon were found together under the tree, as though, as one officer described, "they were lying in bed together". Douglas was a few feet away in the open. The Pages still had food, but no water. Empty water containers were found along the route the family had walked. They had been discarded so the adults could carry the younger boys. Robert's boots were found nearby but Robert himself was not found until the next day. He had left his family and climbed Deadman's Sandhill, possibly trying to return to Clifton Hills.
According to Howard, recalling her uncle's brave deed that day: "He climbed up the top of the sandhill and tied his shirt to a gidgee tree, so he was still trying to get help. It would've been hard for him to walk off and leave everyone." Robert had dug a trench, trying to seek cooler earth, and shade. But this time, the jackaroo's bush skills wouldn't be enough to save him.
The tragedy of the Page family was destined to make headlines across the world, especially England, with its flood of migrants waiting to come to the "lucky country". But for Avril Howard, growing up in Adelaide, it wasn't something she heard much about. "I probably would've asked some questions," she thinks, "flipped through the scrapbook (of cuttings her mother kept)", but it wasn't until she was pregnant with her first son (Scott, now 17) that she really started asking questions.
Howard obtained Judy's permission to access coroner's files about the tragedy, and then approached State Records for more information. This paper chase led her to the Marree and Port Augusta police stations, both of which had kept files, photos, daily reports and transcripts about the tragedy, but had lost them in the intervening years. Eventually she found Eric Sammon, an ex-Queensland police officer based at Birdsville in 1963, who'd been involved in the search for and discovery of the Pages. Howard obtained more information, with the goal of visiting the site of the tragedy.
That opportunity came last year. Avril with her husband Keith, youngest son Jordon, 12, and brother Ian, from Perth, along with his partner, Molly, and their two daughters, returned to the Birdsville Track in July 2010. "It wasn't until Mum passed away [five years ago] that we started looking into it a bit more ... it made it more of a goal," Howard says. She explains that this journey had always been in the back of her mind, but that she hadn't wanted to upset her mum. 'For Mum it was a bit too sensitive to talk about ... being 21 and your whole family dying ... her way was to not talk about it. In herself, there were probably days when she thought about it, but she wasn't consumed by it."
The Pages' car wasn't found until Sunday December 29. Phil McKenzie, heading north from Copley, about 120km south of Marree, was delivering supplies to rabbit trappers when he came across the Customline, 60km south-west of Pandie Pandie Station. McKenzie saw the note, the empty fuel tank, and knew something was terribly wrong. He continued on to Clifton Hills Station where he contacted Sergeant Sammon in Birdsville. Technical difficulties with the government radio network meant that Sammon could not raise the alarm before New Year's Eve.
Sammon improvised. He borrowed a vehicle and started a search. The owner of Kamaran Station, Jack Clancy, used his own plane to help. When eventually contacted, South Australian police and black trackers in four-wheel drives arrived. An RAAF DC-3 was dispatched from Edinburgh air force base. It wasn't long before Clancy, and his spotter, George Morton, of Pandie Pandie Station, made out four bodies under a coolibah tree.
It was 4pm on New Year's Eve. Searchers were given directions and made their way to the tragic scene. Don Engleton, the first police officer to arrive, didn't even know Robert existed when he found the four bodies. According to Howard, "he thought that was the whole family and they were buried the next morning ... but then the trackers saw the prints of another young person heading away (to Deadman's Sandhill). They could tell by the footprints that Robert and Ernest had brought Emma in (under the tree) and she never came back out. And then the eldest little one [Douglas] walked around in circles until he passed away. It wouldn't have mattered how much water they had with them. It was over 50C, and no amount of water would have saved them."
It was decided the partly-decomposed bodies were too difficult to recover, so Sammon arranged for a front-end loader to be driven from Birdsville to excavate a large grave and the family were buried in a Roman Catholic service conducted by Engleton and Brian Dowling. The grave was eventually marked by a circle of rocks. A crew from Pointon's Garage in Port Augusta arrived to repossess the Customline. They refueled the car but couldn't find the keys. Someone mentioned that they were still in Ernie's pants when he was buried, so the crew hot-wired the car and drove it back to Port Augusta.
Grave Site form 2005 trip
When Howard and her family returned to the desert they had trouble finding the grave. Eventually 12-year-old Jordon found the spot. Engleton told them it was originally marked by a cross made from the coolibah tree, but this was later replaced with a sturdier, metal cross.
When Howard and her brother found the site it had been, ironically, recently flooded. The old metal cross had come apart so they took it back to the Birdsville Caravan Park and repaired it. Then, using equipment they'd hauled, they laid a small slab and placed a permanent memorial on top. After a few days' work, Howard and her brother had done what they had been planning for so many years: made the pilgrimage to honour their lost family. "It's South Australia's largest Outback tragedy," Howard says. "If it's not told, then it's all forgotten about. It is my family, but it is also part of our history."
And, for Howard, memories of her own mum, who always remembered Emma as a "small lady who was always there for the family", who "didn't want to talk to people about it…" And why would she? Who could fathom the horror of losing their entire family at age 21? Howard remembers that, "Mum was ironing ... it was on the news. Mum wasn't really listening. Then she was getting phone calls asking if she was OK. Then her friends rang Dad and he came home. She was put on sedatives. They'd only found the four so Mum was thinking, 'there's hope for Robert' ... and then Dad recalls the next morning a police officer coming to the house."
Howard plans to write a book about her family. She also wants to return to the site this year to lay another memorial where Robert perished. She hopes to use photos of the Customline to track the registration, and see if, miraculously, it might still exist (her father eventually drove to Port Augusta to reclaim it, but later sold it).
Today the Marree garage Ernie worked in is a ruin of four crumbling walls. The site of the tragedy is still not marked on the Birdsville Track, and the government wants to keep it that way, to let the family rest in peace. Noel Glass still wants it signposted, as a warning as much as anything.
When Howard was in Birdsville recently, she met Jimmy Crombie, an indigenous man who had worked at Clifton Hills with her uncle, Robert. Jimmy gave her a belt buckle that had once belonged to Robert. He said, "That belongs to you now."
Stephen Orr's third novel, Time's Long Ruin, was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.