If you are Australian, and old enough to remember watching television in the 1960s and 1970s, you would be well aware of just how popular the Leyland Brothers were in those days.
Mike and Mal Leyland first came to the public’s attention when TCN9 screened the Leyland’s documentary of their arduous 1400 mile trip down the Darling River - a waterway that crosses some of the most desolate country in the Aussie outback.
Their odyssey required more than boating skills. Hundreds of obstacles in the ‘river’ meant their small boat and outboard motor had to regularly rowed, pushed, shoved, dragged and carried; while dealing constantly with bush flies, ants, spiders and the presence of venomous snakes.
Even by the standards of the early 60s, the film was amateurish. However, this was part of the appeal. Here were young guys, with very limited resources, taking on a challenge that had never been attempted. The popularity of the film took everyone by surprise (particularly, TCN9) and led to the Leyland brothers becoming professional outdoor documentary makers. In later years, their weekly 'Ask the Leyland Brothers' program was attracting a national audience of 2.5 million!
The Leyland's 1966 production, ‘Wheels Across the Wilderness’, lured enough sponsors to cover the expenses of a 111 day, 6797 km (4248m) Land Rover trip across the middle of the Australian continent. To achieve this, by traveling in the most direct course, they had to cross the inhospitable Simpson Desert. And the words "no motorised vehicle will ever penetrate this desert" written by explorer, Cecil Madigan, would have been an irrresistable challenge.
According to the publicity of the day - and the inferences in their documentary - the Leylands were the first to cross the Simpson using motor vehicles. It made a great story, and film of them tackling the dunes and making desperate repairs to their their Land Rovers (five broken differentials!) gave television audiences a real appreciation of Australia's harsh desert country.
However, the Leylands were not the first to drive a motor vehicle across the Simpson. In fact, three years before they arrived, Compagnie Generale Geophysique (CGG) had already carved a road right through the desert for the oil exploration company, French Petroleum. In 1962, the founder of Geosurveys Australia, Reg Sprigg, had driven across, using a different route.
If the Leylands had not been aware of the 'French Line' (as the road is now known) when they began their journey, they would certainly have found out about it when they reached the Simpson. There would have been too many indicators of 'activity' for them to remain ignorant of the easy way through the desert. And there are reports of the Leylands speaking to a driver who had been contracted by CGG.
The fact that they made their crossing well away from the most direct route indicates that they certainly knew of the new road's existence. Perhaps it was more important to film a dramatic (and entertaining) challenge than be too concerned about minor facts. Whatever the truth, 'Wheels Across the Simpson' was a commercial success for the Leylands - and their sponors.