Francis Birtles (7 November 1881 – 1 July 1941)
“Why the idea should ever have occurred to me to risk a ride on a bicycle over eight thousand miles of territory. Much of which was practically pathless would be hard to explain. The desire to do and dare something outside the hum-drum limits of city life urged me to blaze the trail” – Francis Birtles
Francis Birtles was known as “the Overlander” and set out to explore Australia by bike and by motor car in days gone by where much of Australia remained unexplored. Perth and Darwin were only accessible by boat, and in between was a vast wasteland with long stretches of land with virtually no habitation. Francis was born in Melbourne and was an Australian adventurer, photographer, cyclist, writer and filmmaker, who had a thirst for discovery and adventure, which led to him setting many long-distance cycling and driving records.
Francis explored some of Australia’s most remote and desolate places. Not being able to carry too many supplies Francis had to live off the land and used bushman skills to hunt and gather all of his food and water. Danger was a constant companion.
“No matter what happens be it rain, dust, wind, missed waterhole, breakdown or sickness itself. You must keep moving for delay may mean death” – FB.
Francis on occasions ran out of food and water. Had spears thrown at him. Dodged Crocodiles. Outran several bushfires, flash floods and survived several diseases such as Malaria which could have easily led to his death. Just a few of the dangers that Francis faced and survived. What was most remarkable was that he looked death in the face and just moved on. Nothing ever deterred him from his trips.
Francis came to fame on the bike when he set off from Fremantle (Western Australia) on 26 December 1905 to cycle to Melbourne. A journey of over 3,500 km across some of Australia’s most inhospitable area the Nullarbor Desert. This was the first west to east bicycle crossing of the country. Following this ride, in 1907-08, Francis cycled to Sydney and then, via Brisbane, Darwin, Alice Springs and Adelaide back to Sydney, and wrote a book on his adventures which he published in 1909; “Lonely Lands – through the heart of Australia”. A year where he set a new cycling record for the Fremantle to Sydney continental crossing.
The isolation and the unknown dangers that lurked around every corner. Francis spoke of it; “No wonder the place is known as the lonely land. The complete isolation is very depressing and it takes all one’s inner resource to preserve mental balance” – FB. Yet he felt more at home exploring on his own than of the company of a crowded city, and was drawn to the adventure. In 1910-11 Francis Birtles rode around Australia, and for part of this ride he was accompanied from Sydney to Darwin with a cameraman, who filmed a documentary “Across Australia” which was released the following year. On this journey from Fremantle to Sydney, Francis broke his previous records by riding in thirty-one days. His legend grew.
By 1912 Francis Birtles had cycled around Australia twice and had crossed the continent seven times, and had claimed to have ridden over 112,000km. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to explore Australia by bike back when there were no roads:
“in many places I would have to look for a path or push my bicycle though the scrub. Many times I have had to carry my bike, and with all the attached gear was no light task” – FB
One of Francis’s many terrifying experience on the bike was shortly before reaching the town of Gympie. Francis misjudged a bushfire which he couldn’t make out whether it was receding or advancing towards the road ahead. When he realised that the fire was heading straight for him he started to ride like a bat out of hell.
“The whole hillside resembled a city illuminated by night. With the fire gaining on me at every turn of my wheel as the hot breath of my opponent was already beginning to tell upon me. A red hot cinder struck my front tyre and burned it through. A few minutes later my back tyre burst & I was forced to dismount. Turning back was hopeless. Burning limbs were falling in all directions. I must admit I felt scared. I mounted my bike and rode on the rims and made a dash. Fear lent wings as I drove it frantically over every obstacle. My clothes were scorched & hair singed” – FB
Francis narrowly escaped with his life, but his ordeal was not yet over. Stranded 80km from the nearest town Gympie, Francis was forced to ride on his rims where possible. The rest of the time was spent walking or carrying his bike. Francis once said about himself: “for I am as hard as nails“. I wouldn’t disagree with him.
Motor Car Adventures
Birtles was most famous for his motor car adventures. He moved on from cycling and developed a love for the motor car and in the process set many speed records along the way. In 1912 Francis completed the first west-to-east crossing of the continent in a single-cylinder Brush car. Francis made numerous transcontinental crossings and it has been said that all up Francis may have completed between 70 -80 transontinental crossings by bike and by car.
Francis is best known as the first person to ever drive from London to Melbourne in 1928. This journey took him nine months to completed in ‘The Sundowner”, a car which you can see at the National museum in Canberra. In a Post World War I era this crossing was incredibly dangerous, none more-so than the crossing across Burma, who’s population at the time consisted of Cannibals & head hunters. Many explorers had visited the area, never to be seen alive again.
If you want to read about Francis amazing journeys by car click on this link to find out more.
Aged 15, Francis Birtles joined the merchant navy as an apprentice. In 1899 he jumped ship at Cape Town (South Africa) where he tried to enlist with Australian militia, Francis was attached to the Field Intelligence Department as part of a troop of irregular mounted infantry until May 1902. After a brief return to Australia, he joined the constabulary in the Transvaal as a mounted Police officer. He learned to use bushcraft skills in a semi-arid environment and undertook several cycling and photographic excursions, which provided him experience which helped in all of his future adventures. His service ended when he contracted blackwater fever.
Francis was fond of being called the “King of Arnheim Land”.
“Lonely Lands – through the heart of Australia”, copyright 1909 Alfred Cecil Rowlandson
“Francis Birtles – Australian adventures” by Warren Brown, copyright 2012 Hachette Ausralia