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Bejah Dervish and the Calvert Expedition


In the middle of the Great Sandy Desert, one sandhill rises slightly higher than the rest. Larry Wells, leader of the ill-fated Calvert expedition to central Western Australia, named it for Bejah Dervish, greatest of the Afghan cameleers. Wells learned his craft as a surveyor, mapping the Queensland border from Poeppel’s Corner in the Simpson Desert to the Gulf of Carpentaria with Augustus Poeppel. He crossed the Great Victoria Desert with David Lindsay on the Elder Scientific Exploring expedition, and on 13 July 1896 he set off to fill in the last blank on the map, a vast expanse of longitudinal sand dunes in the remote north-west.
During the winter and early part of the spring they made good progress, but with the fierce heat of summer that changed. The desert lies above a vast sub-artesian basin; if you know where to look there are a fair number of native wells, but they are not easy to find. Wells and his companions suffered dreadfully from lack of water; even their camels collapsed. Bejah, the cameleer, felt for his charges. ‘Camel no eat, me no eat’, he said, and when the men’s supplies gave out, that’s how it was.
Desperate to locate water, Wells split his party at a place he named Separation Well. The plan was for the two groups to rendezvous at a place named Joanna Springs. Three weeks later, Wells and Bejah—the leader nearly blind from a form of ophthalmia called sandy blight, the Afghan sunburnt and turbanless—staggered into Joanna Springs. The place had been wrongly marked on the map drawn by its discoverer, the explorer Warburton. Of the others, George Jones and Larry’s cousin Charles Wells, there was no sign. Desperately low on supplies, Wells decided to push through to Fitzroy Crossing and both men and camels were in a desperate state when they arrived there. That they arrived there at all was due to Bejah’s tireless efforts to find waterholes and wells. Bejah would hunt and kill food to feed the starving party. While the party rested, he would shepherd the camels long into the night to find them food.
Barely four days after arriving at Fitzroy Crossing, Bejah went back to the desert with Wells to search for their missing comrades, but they were turned back by the ferocious heat. A short time later they tried again, but again they failed. The following March, Bejah set out again with Wells. This time the weather was cooler, and they proceeded to the Joanna Springs area, where they captured some Aboriginal men who led them to the bodies of Charlie Wells and George Jones, mummified by the dry desert air. By Jones’s head was notebook in which he’d written his last words:
My dearest Mother and Father,
I am writing this short note the last one I shall ever write I expect. We left the main party at the well and after 5 days travelling had to return being away 9 days as we were both far from well I had hardly any strength. After 5 days spell we started to follow the main party after severe trials some of the camels died so we have had to walk we are both very weak and ill the other two camels are gone and neither of us have the strength to go after them I managed to struggle half a mile yesterday but returned utterly exhausted. There is no sign of water near here, and we have nearly finished our small supply have about two quarts left so we cannot last long. Somehow or other I do not fear death itself I trust in the Almighty God. We have been hoping for relief from the main party but I am afraid they will be too late. Any money of mine I think I should like divided between Eve Laurie and Beatrice. Now my darling parents I wish you goodbye, but I trust we will meet in heaven. You both have always been so good to me I should so like to see you again. Mr Charles has been very good indeed to me during this trip he is not to blame that we are in this fix. It is Gods will so we should not object. Goodbye to Evie Jo and Beat and all our friends. And now darlings God give me strength till our next meeting. God’s will be done.
I remain,
Your loving son,
George Lindsay Jones

He was twenty-two years old.

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Larry Wells gave Bejah Dervish his compass to thank him for his extraordinary service. Bejah went home to Marree in South Australia, where he tended his date palms and read the Koran until his death in 1958. He played a minor role in John Heyer’s 1952 Palme d’Or–winning documentary The Back of Beyond. Bejah’s corrugated-iron house and the date palms he so carefully nurtured can still be seen in the Ghan town at Marree.
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The Miegunyah Press ISBN 0-522-85380-3 More...
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