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Lumen Summer 2008 Issue
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Reg Sprigg: the unsung rock legend

A new book details the life, loves and achievements of a great South Australian.

Geologist, explorer, environmentalist and a founder of South Australia's oil and gas industry, Reg Sprigg is one of those great pioneers of the 20th century who has contributed hugely to the State and the nation.

Until now his name has only been known mainly within government, academia and industry circles, but a new book is spreading the word about this remarkable man to the general public.

Rock Star: the story of Reg Sprigg - an outback legend vividly recalls the triumphs, heartaches and legacy of Reg Sprigg in a fitting tribute to his life. Written by best-selling author Kristin Weidenbach, the book tells a fascinating and inspiring story about this visionary South Australian.

Ms Weidenbach said the list of 'firsts' for Reg was extremely long.

Reg discovered the oldest fossils in the world, the 500-million-year-old Ediacara fossils in the Flinders Ranges.

He was among the first to theorise about climate change. In 1948 he formed a theory - rejected by the International Geological Congress in London - that the sand dunes at Beachport and Robe in South Australia's south-east were the result of sea level changes and glacial melting.

He was the first person to propose a theory about the geological formation of Adelaide's landscape due to movement under the earth's crust (this was before plate tectonics was known).

He discovered some of the deepest undersea canyons, south of Kangaroo Island, about the size of the American Grand Canyon - and to confirm his discoveries he took up scuba diving when it was still fairly new, and built his own boat and his own diving chamber.

Reg helped to set up South Australian oil and gas company Santos; he discovered the Great Cooper Basin oil and gas fields; founded Beach Petroleum; and pioneered exploration in the Simpson Desert and the Gulf St Vincent. He was also the first person to drive across the Simpson Desert.

His interests in mining and oil and gas exploration were balanced by a great love for the environment. For many years Reg lived at Arkaroola in the Flinders Ranges, where he established one of Australia's first eco-tourism resorts, Arkaroola Wildlife Sanctuary.

"There are so many areas where Reg was the first - he was always at the forefront making discoveries and was often waiting for the rest of the world to catch up," Ms Weidenbach said.

Reg was born in 1919 at Stansbury on Yorke Peninsula, but his family moved to the Adelaide suburb of Goodwood in his early years. He used to collect shells and fossils on the beach from the age of five, and he became fascinated with geology by the age of 10, thanks to a chance meeting with a retired miner from Broken Hill, whose mineral samples were a source of amazement. Reg's first experience of the University of Adelaide came when, as a child, he took mineral samples he had collected into the Geology Department for identification.

When Adelaide Technical High School dropped geology from its curriculum, Reg showed his dedication by studying geology independently in order to take the subject as part of his matriculation exam. As a result, he topped the State in geology.

In 1937, Reg began studying at the University of Adelaide under the tutelage of renowned geologists and Antarctic explorers Sir Douglas Mawson and Cecil T Madigan.

"Being at Adelaide University in the 1930s was a time when students were expected to be seen and not heard - a lot like children - and that's where Reg was different," Ms Weidenbach said. "He had a deeply inquiring mind, and he wouldn't hesitate to question his professors and draw them into vigorous scientific debate if they had opposing views on something.

"Reg was not a brilliant academic scholar, but he was driven by an overwhelming intellectual curiosity about the world around him. He was a lateral thinker full of new ideas and new ways
of looking at the old scientific truths," she said.

Reg completed his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology and an Honours degree in Geology in 1941. During World War Two, he tried to enlist in the Air Force but was prevented from doing so and was instead diverted to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR, later to become the CSIRO).

It was while working for the CSIR in 1944 that he was asked to take part in a top-secret geological survey for uranium. Not knowing it at the time, Reg had become part of a worldwide search by Allied Forces for uranium that could be used in atomic bombs. It was thanks to this work that Reg first visited South Australia's two uranium deposits: Radium Hill, 100km south-west of Broken Hill, and Mount Painter at Arkaroola Station in the Flinders Ranges. Thus started Reg's life-long love affair with Arkaroola.

Reg's work on uranium would eventually see him appointed Assistant Government Geologist with the Department of Mines, and it brought him into contact with another great South Australian, Sir Mark Oliphant. They met for the first time in 1947 at Mount Painter.

"At the time, Oliphant was a professor at Birmingham University and was a member of the British Atomic Energy Commission," Ms Weidenbach said. "Having been a key member of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War Two, Oliphant was one of the few people in the world who knew anything about this new 'wonder metal' uranium."

Many years later, Oliphant recalled the circumstances under which he and Reg Sprigg met: "I was both exhausted and dehydrated. Offered beer in the shed, I shook my head, unable to speak, and pointed to a large canvas water bag hanging on the branch of a tree. A young geologist in khaki working clothes took pity on me, found glasses in the shed and led me to the water bag, where I drank more than I'd ever drunk before or since. My saviour was Reg Sprigg."

Oliphant and Sprigg would later become close friends for the rest of their lives.

"In a way, the book is the story of two remarkable men - Reg Sprigg and Sir Mark Oliphant," Ms Weidenbach said. "They were both exceptional scientists and very similar people. They both had an innate love of the environment."

In 1948, Reg was sent to the United States, Europe and the UK to learn, first-hand, more about uranium. "When he returned nine months later, he was the most knowledgeable uranium geologist in the country, and that's when he came under the observation of ASIO," Ms Weidenbach said.

By 1951, ASIO had made Reg's work with the government intolerable. Because of some of his past associations, ASIO branded him a "suspected Communist" and a "scientist of counter-espionage interest". They acted to have information important to his work withheld from him. Reg was unaware of their interference, but he was increasingly unhappy about his work and handed over responsibility for uranium to others. He was kept under surveillance by ASIO for 10 years.

The oil boom in Western Australia in 1953 put geologists in demand like never before. Faced with a wide range of job offers, Reg decided to resign from the Department of Mines and establish his own company, Geosurveys, and this began his extensive involvement in oil and gas exploration that would span many decades.

Ms Weidenbach said her inspiration to write about Reg Sprigg came from being part of the family herself. "They say 'write what you know', and I've been lucky to have lived at Arkaroola with Reg's son, Doug, and we have a daughter, Reg's granddaughter, so I got to know the family and the place. It's pretty hard not to come under the spell of Arkaroola, and Reg for having built it," she said.

To help write her book, Ms Weidenbach accessed Reg's extensive personal archives at Arkaroola, as well as some of the Oliphant papers which are part of the Special Collections at the University of Adelaide's Barr Smith Library.

"As a writer, I find that personal letters are one of the most important research tools," she said. "People reveal their thoughts and emotions, but they also speak in their letters of the culture of the time, the weather, the politics, and all those other clues to the times that they lived in."

Ms Weidenbach said Reg's love for the environment was not out of step with his interests in mining and oil and gas exploration. As scientists, he and Oliphant shared concerns for the future of the human race. "Reg was more optimistic that people's inventiveness would prevail, and that benefits could be achieved through technology - 'as long as we don't destroy the Earth's riches first', he warned."

In one of his many letters to Oliphant, Reg wrote: 'I see by an article in the latest journal that the CO2 greenhouse effect is not appearing so rapid - not until 2030 do they expect serious melting of the ice caps. Surely now is the time to take more drastic action before it's too late. We seem determined to mortgage the future, making it easier for us right now - enjoy now, pay later.'

While working in Melbourne, Reg would stand on street corners while waiting for the tram and count the number of occupants in each passing car. 'At around 9 o'clock in the morning, approximately one in every 13 cars carried a passenger,' he wrote to Oliphant. By late morning, he estimated that only one in every 20-30 cars contained more than one occupant. 'Such an incredible waste of fuel,' he lamented. 'God, we Westerners are wasteful of resources. Will we last to the end of the century? How can we do without atomic energy as our fossil fuels run out? Is nuclear fusion a real potential before it's too late?'

Ms Weidenbach said Reg's love for Arkaroola kept him grounded. "Whenever Reg felt too downcast about the problems of the world, he could step out under his slate verandah and inhale the clean, dry air of the place... 'God, this wild country is magnificent,' he wrote to friends. It made world politics and international conflicts shrink into oblivion, and it made Reg Sprigg one incredibly lucky human being."

Rock Star: the story of Reg Sprigg - an outback legend is published by East Street Publications. ■

STORY DAVID ELLIS

A 1958 photo of Reg with his two children Margaret and Douglas in the outback.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

A 1958 photo of Reg with his two children Margaret and Douglas in the outback.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

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Reg and Douglas at the cairn atop Geosurveys Hill in the Simpson Desert.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

Reg and Douglas at the cairn atop Geosurveys Hill in the Simpson Desert.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

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Griselda in the foreground of their temporary home - a caravan.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

Griselda in the foreground of their temporary home - a caravan.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

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Reg Sprigg and Sir Mark Oliphant unveiling a commemorative cairn at Arkaroola.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

Reg Sprigg and Sir Mark Oliphant unveiling a commemorative cairn at Arkaroola.
PHOTOS COURTESY EAST STREET PUBLICATIONS

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Members of the University of Adelaide final year geology class.

Members of the University of Adelaide final year geology class.
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The cover of <i>Rock Star</i> published in September 2008.

The cover of Rock Star published in September 2008.
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