Most first-timers thinking about crossing the Simpson Desert will have concerns about vehicle setup and suitability, fuel use and what to do if they have a breakdown on what is arguably the single-most remote trip they have done to date. There is definitely a bit of trepidation involved.
Rest assured, it can be done. You don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment, but there are some basic things you need to know and have with you. It’s also advisable for first-timers to do this trip in a group with other vehicles. Crossing the Simpson Desert by way of the French Line or the WAA Line is not that difficult with a bit of preparation. This article shares the knowledge and experiences that others have learned the hard way, which will hopefully help you avoid making similar mistakes.
Best Safety Equipment for a Simpson Desert Crossing
Some of the most essential safety gear in the desert is the sand flag and the UHF radio. The sand flag is compulsory and is fixed to your vehicle (normally the bulbar or roof rack). It’s used to warn oncoming vehicles of your presence. The flag is normally a bright safety-orange colour and can be seen before your vehicle as you crest the dunes.
A UHF radio is not compulsory, but it should be. Your radio tells you who else might be in the area and/or coming in the opposite direction. Make sure you have one, even if it is a handheld one, and know what channel to be on and how to use it. Regular updates on your position and direction is highly recommended and will save you from a potential head-on collision atop a sand dune. Remember, this is a single-lane track with traffic going in both directions and there’s no way to see over the dunes.
Once you arrive in the desert, you’ll soon hear others making calls advising their positions and direction and will get the hang of it. Don’t be shy, but also don’t go overboard and be constantly talking, as it can spoil the drive for others, if you know what I mean. In an emergency, your radio is also your first point of call to get assistance from anyone nearby.
How to Drive the Sand Dunes
Tackling sand dunes for the first time can also be a bit daunting and it can take time before you get the feel for it and find a happy place with your gear selection for the speed and weight of your vehicle. The automatic transmission is in its element in the desert and takes the gear selection out of the equation. Most experienced drivers stick with high-range 4WD all the way, unless there is a specific obstacle to negotiate, which is when a bit of low range may be needed. Take your time, it isn’t a race, and going fast just adds stress to your vehicle components and suspension.
There are quite a few turns or switchbacks on top of many dunes that really limit your visibility of where the track goes. The trick is to use just enough momentum to crest the dunes and decelerate at the top. We would venture to say that there are no dunes, or at least we didn’t encounter any dunes, in the Simpson Desert where you risk getting stuck on the top ridge of the dune, as long as you stay on the track.
Another consideration is whether to tackle your first desert crossing by heading west to east or taking it head-on by heading east to west. Due to the wind and shifting sands in Central Australia, the dunes are naturally steeper on the east-facing slope, so it is arguably easier to drive from west to east.
What’s the Best Tyre Pressure for a Desert Crossing?
Most experienced desert travellers would probably all agree that the single-most important thing, amongst all the important things to get right, is tyre pressure. This can’t be overstated.
Successfully driving sand dunes requires you to lower your tyre pressure to between 18 and 25 PSI. Or lower if necessary. A lot of damage is done to the dunes by those who fail to lower their tyre pressure and most people who bog their vehicles have not let their tyres down.
Initial tyre pressure should be taken at the beginning of the trip when the tyres are cold. They will heat up during the trip, adding between four and seven PSI to your reading. If your vehicle does become stuck, the first thing to check is your tyre pressure. You might find that you need to let some more air out to get back down to around 18 PSI.
Lowering the pressure of your tyres also means that you will need a way to pump them up again. We recommend packing a portable air compressor, which makes the job simple and fast.
Be Mindful of Dust in the Desert
Plan for heavy bulldust on the roads at both the Birdsville and Mt Dare sides of the Simpson Desert. The bulldust on the track to Dalhousie Ruins was exceptionally thick in some places, disguising large potholes that can cause damage to a vehicle travelling too fast. Although the desert itself is not dusty, if the wind picks up, you will get sand in everything.
If you want to store your camping and 4WDing gear securely and away from sand, check out the Expedition134 Heavy Duty Storage Box. It has a customised seal and unique ridge design that create a weatherproof seal to protect your gear from dust, water and sand.
Pack Smart & Always be Prepared for Emergencies
Take only necessary gear and try to keep your overall vehicle weight to a minimum. This means practicing some minimalistic camping and leaving behind big heavy items or sharing them amongst a group of vehicles.
Along with making some calculations and carrying sufficient water for the trip (with a decent buffer in case of a breakdown), it is highly advisable to keep some water in separate jerry cans or containers in case one breaks or rubs through and you lose the lot.
Feeling a bit nervous about what to bring? Here are some items we always take when crossing the Simpson Desert:
• Desert Parks Pass
• Fly nets
• Low-temperature sleeping bags
• Comprehensive first-aid kit
• Gas for cooking
• Dried and canned food in case of emergency
• Multiple jerry cans of drinking water
• Satphone and/or UHF radio
• Two spare tyres
• Heavy-duty and dust-proof storage boxes
Make Sure Your Vehicle Has Some Extra Support
With all the corrugations on the dirt roads leading to both Mt Dare and Birdsville, and all the “whoopsies” or offset wheel holes in the dunes, it’s worth applying some Loctite to all the nuts and bolts on your vehicle. Lightbars, driving lights and roof rack brackets are all prone to vibrations. A preventative dose of Loctite will help prevent them from coming loose and avoid any frustrating (and costly) losses or damage.
But most importantly, know what to do in the case of a breakdown. Make sure you have the means to communicate and the knowledge of who to contact and how you plan to make that contact if the need arises.
If you want the extra security of satellite communications, you can hire a satellite phone from Mt Dare and drop it off at the information centre in Birdsville. Another good idea is travelling with an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radiobeacon station) or even one of the new satellite communication devices, such as the Garmin InReach.
You should also know your insurance policy and what it covers. You may have to seek extra coverage for this trip or you may find yourself out of pocket for thousands of dollars if something goes wrong. Club 4×4 has an option to pay a bit extra on your premium for specific trips, but many others don’t. The Birdsville Roadhouse has about the only recovery vehicle in the region that can help you out in the desert, but they don’t come cheap.
Take Only Photographs & Leave Only Footprints … and Tyre Tracks
The Simpson Desert is a wilderness that needs looking after and the amount of rubbish out there is quite concerning. All rubbish, including wads of toilet paper, either needs to be burnt or taken with you. Don’t bury any rubbish, unless it’s human waste, because the dingoes will just dig it up again.
Need some tips on stopping animals from scavenging your food? Check out our blog on secure food storage options when camping.