December 7, 2023 Rhonda Pryor

Notes on a family’s history

Rolling with the punches

Hermannsburg Mission, detail


A mid-year revisiting of my husband’s family history (and my real introduction) became a fascinating glimpse into human resilience and outright grit (and a little bit of hell).

Alice Springs is where my husband was brought up, at least in his toddler years, and I’d heard many stories about living in a hut with dirt floors, dangerous driving in the bush, and make-do heroics the likes I’d never seen. It was time to see the evidence first hand.

Hence, following are a few notes on a family’s history in the Northern Territory.

As a briefest-of-brief rundowns of the familial line: Gerhardt Johannsen, a Danish immigrant, married Ottilie Hoffman and had six children, the most adventurous of whom was Kurt, born in 1915 at Deep Well, 80 k south of Alice Springs. Two of his siblings: Randle (1925) and Myrtle (1926), were also born there. Elsa was first-born (Barossa Valley, 1906) and Gertrude the second (NT, 1912). Mona was born at Hermannsburg in 1923.  Randle was my husband Jon’s father; Kurt, his uncle. Their story is one of real hardship, resourcefulness and determination.


Women’s Museum of Australia

The beautiful Ottilie (Tilly) Johannsen, undated

Our first stop on the trail was The Women’s Museum of Australia, which needs some time to take in. Set in the old Alice Springs gaol, which holds its own fascinations, there is so much about the resourceful women who made central Australia their home. Jon’s grandmother Ottilie was quite a feature here. How she had the time to make her own lace is a mystery, especially when multiple small children were around and the laundry process, let alone all the other household tasks, was such an ordeal. You’ll have to visit the museum to get the full laundry story but I can assure you you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Detachable collars, such as the one on show that she made herself (see below), were made to fit the neckline perfectly, and could be added to any outfit required. Appearances were important, especially when money was scarce, so lace was an investment. And being detachable meant washing the collars was much easier (bonus).

Hermannsburg Mission

Gerhardt was a stonemason and builder, amongst other things, and found work helping build the church at Hermannsburg Mission. The mission buildings are architecturally charming, such wonderful spaces and openings, and a joy to explore. A stone’s throw from Hermannsburg Potters and (the sadly neglected) Albert Namatjira’s cottage, the whole area is fascinating to visit.

Ottilie Johannsen and her daughter Elsa, Hermannsburg, 1909. She is everywhere.

Deep Well

Deep Well, which in more recent times has become a cattle station, was where half the Johannsen children were born – in the middle of… nowhere. Gerhardt and Ottilie moved there in order to live and generate an income from the property, but left in the late 1920s due to drought.

Jon and I wanted to find the old homestead, so with the help of Google Maps, Jon’s cousin Tony (Mona’s son) and his ute, we tried to match up locations with old photographs. There may have been a closer road but the one we took (more of a track) stopped at a disused date farm (lots of trees but no dates, with a not-so-friendly farmer). From there, on foot, we followed the line of the hills in the distance, trying to place where the house would have been, through a dry creek bed and a few hundred metres of waist-high grass, until….. success!

The ruins

Just some remnants were left, but more than enough to prove the history. A few posts still stood where cattle had been fenced, and stone foundations where rooms had been, and a chunk of the old kitchen stood amongst the grasses. It was really special to see some tangible reality that gave weight to the stories I’d heard.


Palm Valley

The vegetation and rock formations of Palm Valley are really beautiful. We daytripped to the gorgeous, incredibly hot, 4WD-only, valley in a little Suzuki Jimny. No smooth rides here, but certainly more comfortable than when Gerhardt was bussing tourists into the valley in the 1920s. By the time he was twenty two Kurt had joined him in the enterprise. Lucky for the passengers their hosts were adept at fixing things…

Not my preferred means of transport. How passengers didn’t fall off the truck or die of heatstroke is beyond me.


Central Australian Aviation Museum, Araluen 

More family tracking meant we couldn’t NOT go the the aviation museum, where Kurt’s famous propeller story is proudly displayed. Kurt Johannsen absorbed his father’s talent for fixing anything and everything. He could put machines together like no-one else.


The propeller story goes like this:

In October 1950 Kurt Johannsen set off from Mt Lyell Brown in a Tiger Moth, with his partner Jimmy Price, to help search for Lasseter’s Gold Reef. They landed nicely on (salt) Lake Hopkins, north of Rawlinson Range in WA to refuel, but…

One wheel got bogged, tipping the plane awkwardly, and breaking off about 15 inches from each end of the propeller. Kurt used the propeller as a shovel to dig about a metre through the salt crystals to free the wheel. He used two jerrycans to forge a makeshipt condenser that yielded six litres of water a day.

Somehow he balanced the propeller on a screwdriver, lightened the plane as much as possible, left Jimmy with the trusty condenser and attempted to head off. Revving the engine to 3300 rpm (1400 above permissable), he managed to get the plane two metres above the mulga. Eagles indicated thermal activity  so he followed their lead until he rose a hundred metres above the terrain. Thermalling higher, he maintained the necessary height to fly and land safely back at Ehrenberg base camp.

He did fly back to retrieve Jimmy.

This episode was a fitting prep for what was to follow.


National Road Transport Museum

By now we’re getting to the real deal of vehicle patchworking. Uncle Kurt was famous for inventing the self tracking Road Train.

The National Road Transport Museum, an enormous institution in Alice Springs, has an entire pavilion named after him. Most famous for creating Bertha (perhaps his ultimate patchwork?), he must have been completely fearless to drive the thing. He got stuff where it had to go, rescued people from floods and even moved buildings with his inventive bitzers.


You’ve got to have some guts to even think about attempting this…

Bertha, 2023


While a brief reflection on an amazing trip, which can doubtless be expanded in multiple ways, it’s not hard to see why creativity is useful. While ingenuity ran in the family, Mona and Myrtle became exhibiting artists and were widely known in the Territory.

Having the opportunity to see tangible, surviving evidence of personal lives from the past is an amazing thing. Looking, being and reflecting back arouses the mind, curiosity and, in time, influences and inspires the future.







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