Driving Miss Ada

In 1930 an elderly heiress presuaded a taxi driver to take her from Melbourne to Darwin – an astounding 7,000-mile odyssey through the untamed Outback. Now, his descendants are retracing the journey across Australia

One winter's day in 1930, an elderly woman approached Charlie Heard, a taxi driver, as he waited for a fare in Geelong, a country town west of Melbourne. Was he interested in a "long fare", she asked him. "Yes," he replied, thinking she meant Melbourne. Ada Beal told him: "I want to go to Darwin and back."

Three weeks later, they set off on a 7,000-mile odyssey across the Outback, the world's longest continuous taxi ride. Mr Heard was at the wheel of his 1928 Hudson convertible. Miss Beal had two companions: Miss Wilmont, an elderly friend, and Miss Glenny, her nurse and housemaid.

At that time, there were barely any roads in the Australian interior, just a few bush tracks leading from farms to nearby townships. With a compass, Mr Heard navigated their way across desert scrubland, sand dunes and crocodile-infested rivers, returning 12 weeks later. Their only mishap en route was a single puncture.

Miss Beal, a wealthy heiress with a wooden leg and a taste for adventure, wore a fur coat at all times, even in the 40C desert heat. Mr Heard wore a jacket and tie, and would shoot wild geese for dinner. He also used his gun to fend off poisonous snakes. The Hudson consumed four quarts of oil and 550 gallons of petrol, and was refuelled with supplies left by Afghan camel drovers.

It was an extraordinary feat, but the tale of Driving Miss Ada was never told publicly, and it was more or less forgotten, even by the families of those on the trip. Then 15 years ago, one of Mr Heard's grandchildren, Steve, was given a photograph album by his aunt, which meticulously documents the trip.

"When I flicked through the album, I was just staggered," he said. "I realised it was a truly amazing part of Australian history, and a uniquely Australian story. I told myself, 'One day I'm going to drive a car around Australia and re-enact where my grandfather went'."

Next month he and his four siblings – Bob, Ron, Doug and Anne – will retrace Mr Heard's journey in a restored 1929 Essex, almost identical to their grandfather's Hudson, with a six-cylinder side-valve engine, canvas top and side windows. They will be accompanied by a friend, who plans to make a documentary, and a commercial film crew. Unlike Mr Heard, they will also have back-up vehicles, including a tow truck.

Miss Beal, a 68-year-old spinster, had inherited a large area of land, including farming properties. She decided to go to Darwin, reportedly, to escape the winter in Victoria. In a story in the Geelong Advertiser in 1930, she said she also wanted to prove that "women can successfully undertake the overland journey across Australia under conditions that assure entirely new and novel surroundings and experiences".

Miss Beal promised to cover all expenses, as well as paying normal taxi rates. Even so, Mr Heard – who had served in France in the First World War and later helped build Victoria's Great Ocean Road – hesitated at first. He had four young children and said he would have to consult his wife, Hazel. But it was the Depression, and the offer was too good to turn down.

Mr Heard had never been to the Outback, although he had bush skills, acquired while growing up in rural Victoria. The Hudson weighed nearly four tons when they set off from Geelong. Piled up on the running boards and on the back was half a ton of spare parts, water, fuel, tents, bedding and camping gear, and all manner of tools, including jacks and spanners.

They headed west along the coast to Port Augusta, via Warrnambool, Mount Gambier and Adelaide, then turned the car north and drove to Oodnadatta – an extremely remote township even by today's standards – to Alice Springs. Eight hundred miles farther north lay Darwin.

Even on the bitumen that now links some of these centres, it is a gruelling trip. But Mr Heard and his passengers were travelling cross-country. Some days they progressed only nine miles, with Mr Heard laboriously rolling out tennis nets made of coconut matting so they could cross sand dunes without getting stuck. One photograph shows them traversing tall bull grass, with one of the women standing on the bonnet, her head poking out just above the grass, to guide the driver.

At night the four of them camped, and slept in tents, on stretchers, although Miss Beal preferred to sleep in the car. Miss Glenny would fold down the seats and make up a bed for her. They would buy bread and other supplies if they passed a homestead or town. But mostly they were dependent on what Mr Heard could trap. They reached one pastoral station, Mataranka, with one litre of fuel left in the tank.

Miss Beal's diary provides a detailed record of the journey, down to what they ate for breakfast. "Mr Heard went and shot a wild goose tonight, plucked it and cooked it for tea," says one entry. Another says: "Mr Heard had to shoot a snake today that was menacing our camp."

Despite their 12 weeks together, the Hudson's occupants remained on formal terms. Miss Beal only ever called her driver "Mr Heard". He called her "Miss Beal". When they came to a river, they simply crossed it. Mr Heard would wade in first, to check the depth, braving the crocodiles that haunt waterways in northern Australia. If it was too deep, he would drive upriver or downriver, looking for a shallowerspot. On one occasion they had to cross the winding Finke river, in the Northern Territory, 12 times in one day.

Despite the conditions, they never suffered a mechanical failure, although they sometimes had to enlist the help of Aborigines to push the car through a river or drag it out of sand dunes. But the Hudson never broke down – which was fortunate, because they probably would have perished – and returned to Geelong on its original tyres.

They organised to have fuel dropped off by the Afghan camel trains that carried supplies across the Outback during that era. Steve Heard says: "The fuel would be left just beyond the big rock, under the tree. So it all had to be very carefully organised, by sending telegrams ahead. You're talking central Australia, and in 1930 this was the middle of absolute nowhere."

The Hudson was one of the best cars around at that time: powerful, well-built and reliable. But it had no special ability to drive cross-country. Mr Heard says it is ironic that the party accomplished the trip in such a car while, 80 years later, four-wheel-drives are used for supermarket trips.

Mr Heard and his passengers would set up camp, and everyone had their own chores. Miss Wilmont would fetch firewood, Mr Heard would pitch a tent, and Miss Beal would start the cooking. Miss Glenny looked after Miss Beal. Everyone apparently got on well, although one photograph, showing one of the women walking over a hill into the distance, is simply captioned: "It's no good talking. I'm going."

The return journey was marginally less arduous: after descending from Darwin to Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory, they headed to Brisbane and drove home along the east coast, via Sydney and Melbourne.

Steve Heard, a glazier, was entranced by the photograph album, which had lain at the bottom of his aunt's wardrobe for decades. The 50 or so pictures are all painstakingly captioned. Two of his elder siblings remember playing with the album when they were very young, but had no idea of its significance. Mr Heard says: "The story was never talked about within the family. Charlie was a very quiet man. He would do the job and just get on with it. When he came back from the trip, he just said, 'That was great', then moved on to the next thing."

Until recently, Mr Heard was unaware that Miss Beal had any descendants. But after a story appeared in a Melbourne newspaper, her great-niece, June Hulme, got in touch. She had no idea that her great-aunt made the epic journey. Ms Hulme remembers her as "a very strong, domineering lady".

Last month, Miss Glenny's great-niece phoned Mr Heard and told him that she had Miss Beal's travel diary. "All of a sudden, the jigsaw puzzle was complete," he says.

The re-enactment is expected to take eight weeks, with Charlie Heard's grandchildren frequently going off-road into the sand dunes and tall grass he encountered. They will be accompanied by a 4WD vehicle towing a trailer full of supplies and equipment. Victoria's biggest taxi company is sponsoring them, but they are still seeking more funds.

There is no record of the fare Charlie Heard was paid, but his family believe it was about £300, the equivalent of A$19,000 (£9,000) today. It was enough to enable him to buy his own service station in Benalla, a rural town in Victoria.

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