Our 2015 West to East, Simpson Desert Crossing commenced with a meeting of four blokes and three trucks in Innaminka and then looped down to the North Flinders Ranges of South Australia. From there it was over to Coober Pedy, exploration of the Painted Desert, the Heritage of the Old Ghan rail line and the Oodnadatta Track, and many stops at iconic pubs throughout the heart of the country, and finally into Mt Dare. Rest assured the lure of the Simpson was always going to be the pinnacle of this trip, and once you have the taste, the need to return again and again to enjoy this magical place, won’t leave you.
So our planned crossing was from Mount Dare, through Witjira National Park, Dalhousie Springs including a detour to check out the old Dalhousie ruins, into the Simpson initially on the main French line, dropping down onto the WAA line for its length, back up via the Rig Road to the French line for the remainder of the crossing to Poeppel Corner and up to the QAA line for the run to big Red and into Birdsville.
We were all experienced going up the Cape, and travelling remote parts of North Qld, however not one of us had crossed the desert before, so this was a first for us. The trip included myself and Ben, Whitey (also known as the ‘Pom’ due to his love of all things British) and Mick. Our trip mechanic Mick, who we affectionately call ‘No.5’ (we tell him he is our fifth choice mechanic), helped us look over our vehicles as we packed up camp at Mount Dare and ventured into the unknown. While we all thought we had prepared well, I have to admit I was running a few questions to myself, will my tyres hold up, have I estimated fuel correctly for the 560km crossing, and have I brought the right spares to get myself out of trouble if I do run into it. You can’t carry everything on these trips, but I certainly made sure I had the four main hoses for the radiator and turbo, a spare serpentine belt, a couple of bearing kits, two spare wheels, engine fluids and extra filters for fuel, oil and air. I guess I look back at that now and think if I did it again I would also carry this piece or that spare. It never ceases to amaze me how much you learn on every trip you go on.
Mount Dare itself had just been taken over by new owners and we were not overly impressed after staying there for the night, hopefully, it has improved, and reports indicate this is the case. Mice were plentiful in the campground, showers while basic failed to provide hot water, meals disappointing and service/advice was difficult to obtain. This was a shame as we fundamentally believe this spot could be a fantastic oasis for that little bit of comfort and advice prior to commencing your crossing or even better after four of five days crossing from East to West. I am hoping the 2016 season showed improvements with the new owners and Mount Dare has taken off.
From Mount Dare, we made our way to Dalhousie Springs within Witjira National Park. This is a cracker spot and is the largest natural outlet from the inland Australian Artesian basin. The main visitor area is well organised with campsites and day sites and a walkway with stairs into the spring for swimming. There are also facilities and certainly, our group would have preferred a night here rather than Mount Dare. Nonetheless, it was a great spot for a dip in the warm spring and for a bite to eat and it provides great contrast from the territory you just have or are about to encounter. I would definitely recommend planning an extra night here, the kids will love it, but it no doubt can also get very crowded.
From here a few of us took a detour and went south to the Dalhousie ruins. The ruins are the remains from Dalhousie Station pastoral leases which was first attempted back in 1872 by Ned Bagot. The lease was last in the hands of the Lewis family from South Australia. The ruins are well worth a look with many glimpses of the pioneers from years gone by and genuine hardiness of generations past, prepared to give new parts of Australia a go. The ruins are well signposted with plenty of interesting information boards. Be mindful of the bulldust holes on the way down and back, though. One, in particular, was almost a gorge capable of losing your vehicle in.
We then headed onto the most travelled route of the Simpson, known as the ‘French Line’ and stopped in the afternoon for a look around at Purni Bore which was drilled in 1963 but flow-controlled in 1988 as a way to help conserve the Great Artesian Basin. Numerous birds are in this area, not that I will pretend to be an expert in this field. It is worth spending some time here wandering through the somewhat unique small wetlands to see what you can find. There are also basic toilet facilities at this point which you won’t find again on the crossing.
We continued on over a few more dunes on the French line and found a nice spot between dunes just west of the Rig Road turnoff, for our first camp in the Simpson. The first night in the desert is one part of the experience you will never forget. The flowing dunes mean even on the
busy French line you will be camped nowhere near anyone else and the open sky will never cease to encapsulate your sense of wonder and awe. I do however really wish I was more aware of the value of good photography skills, another learning I am working hard to rectify.
After our first taste of the real desert, we headed off the following morning and turned South down the Rig Road which runs parallel to the dunes initially before turning eastward again to meet with the WAA line. We continued East enjoying the significantly reduced traffic on both the crossing and on the UHF. After passing the Coulson track we came across a dune challenge which had certainly sucked in a large number of 4wds for a crack. Needless to say, we all made it up the easy track, but no one came close of the steep dune which had a massive kick right and then left washing off any momentum one had in hand. A quick bit of fun had by all. I noticed the 20 Litre Jerry I was carrying on the roof had bent its locking mechanism with the continual repetitive dune work over the past two days. Fortunately, I was now able to dump the weight of the fuel into the tank and manipulate a fix for the locking mechanism.
We stopped for the 2nd night just East of the Erabena Track. Well, this was by far the coldest night we experienced with a heavy frost overnight. Fortunately, we made sure we carried with us some good hard timber for fire and of course the resulting embers made for another good camp oven dish.
The following morning started with the usual pack up in good time but about 350 metres up the track the UHF cracked alive with the defeating words of ‘I have a problem, I need to pull up’. The rear vision mirror was filled with two blokes jumping out of the car and having a look underneath. Our trusty mechanic was quickly trying to put a hose back in place, but by this time it was too late. The Nissan affectionately known as the ‘Brown Bear’ had somehow loosened a hose clamp and dumped its entire automatic transmission fluid over 350 meters just after departing the camp. Needless to say, we all thought the same thoughts “How are we getting ourselves out of this one?” We were fortunate to have “No. 5” on the journey who was able to tell us the ‘Brown Bear’ isn’t driving anywhere unless 12 litres of auto transmission fluid is found to run the 6.5litre Chev engine. Well with the other stock-standard Nissan a manual, and the Landy a manual we certainly weren’t offering any auto trans fluid up to the table. The Brown Bear was in need of rescue. A scratch plan was devised and it was decided one car would head 9hrs East to Birdsville and return on a two-day rescue mission. The White Nissan now dubbed ‘White Rabbit’ would take the ‘Pom’ and No.5 (No.5 needed to go with the Pom as he would probably have come back with engine oil if he was left to his own devices and/or get stuck at the Pub). After ensuring all had appropriate supplies (we figured it was going to be a thirsty wait in the middle of the Simpson) No.5 and the Pom headed off for the two-day return trip to Birdsville and ‘White Rabbit Rescue’ was born.
So the Landy stayed with the “Brown Bear’ which is amusing as most would naturally assume the Landy had broken down, it’s ‘I think I can’ attitude just kept going I guess. Needless to say, I turned the Landy around on the track and made sure the Brown Bear kept his bonnet up at all times to ensure the breakdown was clear to all. So a makeshift camp was made right there in the middle of the WAA line.
Not many would consider a story of breaking down in the centre of the Simpson Desert to something you look back on with fond memories. However, the beauty of breaking down in the middle of the Simpson and waiting on your mates to return to rescue your other mates truck is
you actually sit back in one spot and watch the Simpson wildlife undertake their daily activities and curiously look upon these new occupants with suspicion.
While we watched dingoes move in at dusk, and were still unable to sight a camel we were engaged by a local flock of highly active finches. At first, a couple would cautiously look at there new residents from a distance but over the first day, the flock grew in number from a few to 26 as they made their rounds of their local patch. Ever so closer they came to the camp to inspect the new residents and assess their credentials (or lack thereof). By the end of the day, they were happily milling within a couple of metres of the camp and provided unique photographic opportunities. By the time the sun rose on our second day they were right there to greet us with their hyperactive way of life.
However, the finches were not our only unique encounter during our stay on the WAA line. At about 3 am on the second morning we were awoken by the lights bouncing in the distance heading west to east on the WAA line. Our initial thoughts were white rabbit rescue made it to Birdsville before the service stations shut on the first day and had immediately turned around. I mean why else would you be crossing the Simpson at 3 am? But no a father and son (at least that’s what they told us) were in the car and decided to start driving as neither of them could sleep. Needless to say, it was a suspicious encounter from our perspective and not something you would expect for people enjoying a Simpson crossing.
Late in the afternoon ‘White Rabbit Rescue’ crackled to life on the UHF and they were soon upon us. The auto transmission fluid was replaced and the big V8 Chev roared to life soon after. We hastily packed up and drove for a few hours to break the back of the 9hr trip into Birdsville.
The last day in the Simpson allowed us to cross the mesmerising salt plains near Poeppel Corner and make our way to ‘Big Red’. Where all need to have a crack with their vehicles as the final instalment in what is a cracking experience crossing the Simpson from West to East. The automatics on the sand were definitely an advantage here. This is really all about not losing momentum in gear changes. The ‘think I can’ attitude of the ‘Landy’ only allowed the front wheels over the final crest before bogging down and in need of a 1 metre pull to finalise its summit. Having said this the Landy also had to carry No. 5 on its run to the top, just saying… Certainly you can have a lot of fun at different tracks up ‘Big Red’ especially at the end of your crossing if you come from the West. An ECU re-flash since then will probably aid things on the next trip, but we will need to wait and see.
Like most the arrival in Birdsville means a refresh and enjoyable shower before locating ourselves at the Birdsville Hotel for the mandatory refreshing beverages and stories of the crossing not to mention the future trip plans. But all good adventures come to an end and our vehicles departed North North East to Cairns and East to Brisbane.