Mobile GPS 1987 Nullabor Plains

Geof Hinwood with the AWA GPS on my Toyota HiLuxJeff Hinwood Working Our “Portable” GPS

by Robert Brand

In 1987, Jeff Hinwood, John Oxley and myself set out on an OTC Caving and Canyoning club caving expedition to the Nullabor Plains. It was not an easy Sunday drive, but had fun visiting our friends at Ceduna for part of the trip. It was week three and we were in a super remote part of the world. There was a small possibility that we were at least 160km from the nearest person  Possibly we were the most isolated group on land in the world, a thought that often crossed our minds on this trip. The Nullabor plains is the largest piece of limestone in the world and is riddled with caves, some close to the surface and filled with unusual salt crystal formations rather than limestone formations and deeper down, caves of immense proportions. Some filled with water and a huge challenge for divers. The clarity of the undisturbed water is at least 100m, maybe 150m if your light can penetrate.

Possible First Private / Personal Use of GPS

The year was 1987 and the GPS unit was cutting edge. I had approached AWA and they were actually excited to have someone try out the unit in a location other than their Leichhardt site. It was worth a small fortune and I was surprised by their trust. Yes, I did have to sign my life away!

Wikipedia says:

  • On February 14, 1989, the first modern Block-II satellite was launched.

So this makes it the Block I series GPS. Rather unreliable, but it still worked. It would be 5 years before the current series was deployed with enough spacecraft to be considered operational. This unit was on loan courtesy of AWA in Sydney. It ran off 12 volts, but used Nixitubes for the display. There were so few satellites (compared to today) in the constellation so it took at least 4 hours to get a fix that made any sense. The software was also not as good, nor were the spacecraft. They learned from the Block I experience.

The Block II spacecraft launched in 1989 were the first true GPS that worked reliably.

Geof Hinwood with the AWA GPS on my Toyota HiLux

That is Jeff Hinwood with the GPS unit. It used an antenna that looked like a rhinoceros horn and it had to be 6m / 20 feet above the ground or car. It is on the extended pole. We ran the unit overnight for 12 hours to get a truly accurate fix. We were caving in the middle of the world’s largest limestone mass and we were in a desert and probably a 160km (100 miles) from another soul. Australia is like that. We were on the Nullabor Plains – “Null” means “NO” and “abor” means “TREES”. So, “No Trees”! We had found a cave that had been lost for some decades and were we so happy to be able to use the GPS to get a fix on its location. Probably one of the first private civilian uses for a GPS unit in the world. 

That Toyota Hilux belonged to me and it had high lifters fitted, but I had not replaced the wheels with bigger ones at that time. They look a bit small! None the less, as a long vehicle, it was able to get over some amazing drops (with humps)without bottoming out. It is always fun with only 2 cars being in the middle of nowhere. You have to trust that you can extract yourself from any situation. These days your GPS can see lots of satellites all at the same time and get a fix on the spot. Being an early adopter sure had drawbacks, but so amazingly handy in the middle of a desert.

If you look at the image of Jeff by my car, you will notice his amazing desert attire. In particular the socks are pulled up and trimmed – in case we bumped into anyone? That was Jeff, always immaculate even when covered in cave dirt.

None the less, Jeff had to be well attired for the desert and the black art of receiving GPS signals. It was a black art back then. Curses and spells were needed to make the thing work. If after 4 hours you didn’t have a result, start again. Trying to find a good earth for the unit was impossible. Yes, you needed an earth. Best I could do was to lay a copper sheet underground – hard in a rocky area – then pour your precious water all over it. and cover it up with dirt. Like I said – a black art. Socks were probably key to the success of the incantations.

The sunsets on the Nullabor were spectacular every night

The sunsets on the Nullabor were spectacular every night. This picture was snapped close to the Ceduna Earth Station and the start of our Nullabor adventure.

After writing this story I just found the AWA website discussing their GPS systems:
AWA Marine was now well placed to capitalise on the introduction in 1992 of the Global Positioning Systems. GPS used satellites to provide accurate worldwide navigation for merchant vessels and commercial aircraft.

The link is here:

According to the story, GPS was not officially launched to 1992, until they had a proper constellation in orbit and I doubt that there were many groups with the technology to to make use of the system.  Oddly enough I had no idea at the time of the significance of what were were doing.


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