A Hard Trek into the Desert

 Deserts fascinate a lot of people, including me.

The Simpson Desert is called Arunta, in an aboriginal language. It is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world and has over 1100 dunes that lie along a South-southeast/North-northwest axis.

The Simpson Desert lies across the corners of South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, and is virtually in the middle of Australia.

Most Simpson Desert Aboriginal tribes in the 1800's were concentrated around the watercourses of the desert boundaries and aboriginal wells. Stone arrangements in the central desert, and the names of many topographic features, suggest that aborigines travelled throughout the area, particularly in favourable years. There were no less than 9 known wells dug so that the early people could travel across the desert. Many of these wells can still be seen but are no longer functional as they have filled with sand. Aboriginal groups living on the edge of this desert area were hunters and gatherers, as most early inhabitants of this continent were, but they also traded implements with tribes to the north and south.

The first European incursion into the desert was by Charles Sturt in 1845. Then came Augustus Poeppel in 1880. Later, in 1886, David Lindsay travelled from Dalhousie Springs as far as Poeppel Corner and back. Others to make forays into the desert were Winnecke and Warburton.

Recent journeys across the Simpson Desert commenced in 1936 with Ted Colson doing a double-crossing of the desert with camels and an aboriginal guide. Then Cecil Madigan mounted a scientific expedition in 1939 using camels as well. Reg Sprigg surveyed tracks and shot lines for petroleum exploration companies in 1962 and was the first known person to actually cross the desert by vehicle. Then Bluey Wells cut the French Line for the Compagnie Generale de Geophysique (CGG) oil search team. Somewhere in this fray the Leyland Brothers drove across the desert. In the early 1970's Rex Ellis took a tour party across the desert. In 1973 Warren Bonython and Charles McCubbin walked the desert from north to south. In the 1980's Dennis Bartell as well as Hans Tholstrup did a number of epic journeys, by vehicle or on foot through the desert.

A discussion came up somewhere, and I do not recall where from exactly, as to where the Geographical Centre of the Simpson Desert lies. After doing some research and after contacting Warren Bonython, the co ordinates of 137 degrees 5 minutes East and 25 degrees 22 minutes south were forwarded to me. Warren Bonython and Dennis Bartell agreed upon the co-ordinates.

So with this in mind I decided that I too would like to do a run into the desert and in particular to the Geographical Centre. The year was 1986. I had not been to the Simpson Desert before and had only skirted by through Birdsville in 1980.

At first I gathered up a lot of interest from other potential participants but when I explained of just how rough and dangerous it may be the participants were conspicuous by their absence. In July 1987 we did our trip in two Suzuki's. See my report THE SPINIFEX TRAIL, here on my website.

Now in 2006 I had the urge to go back there to see if I could find the marker we put there on 4 July 1987. We had used a sextant to calculate our positions but I was not so sure if we had made the right calculations op if the marker was actually in the right proximity. At a later date the co-ordinates had been accepted as the centre of the desert and with the advent of the hand held GPS (Global Positioning System) made the pin pointing thereof so much easier. David and Joan Owen and party accessed the correct site in 1993 and a plaque was erected in 1995.

We left Alice Springs heading south along the Stuart Highway late on the Monday morning, first day of May, as we had to buy stuff and the day being a public holiday in the Northern Territory, did not help at all. On the way to Kulgera we stopped for a cuppa at Camels Australia Camel Farm at Stuarts Well. Then it was on to the Lambert Centre which denotes the Geographic Centre of Australia and which lies 12km off the road on the way to Aputula (Finke).

At this centre a brand new flag was flying in the breeze and we camped in the vicinity for the night. We managed to rustle up enough wood for a good fire but had a reasonably early night. We rose early the next morning, basically on account that my mate always got up around 5am and stirred the fire to boil the Billy.

When it came time to leave I could not find my wallet. We emptied out the truck and trailer but to no avail. I was sick in the stomach just thinking of what I would have to do to get all my cards and licences replaced. I rang the camel farm on the satellite phone. No, not there. I rang home and told the wife of my senior moment. She was quite sympathetic but it didn't help. Anyway, we could tarry no longer and set off for the day. After a distance we came to a gate and while my passenger was opening the gate, I reached over to get some sweets out of the glove compartment and my wallet dropped into my hand. I only found out then, that there is an elastic band in the top of the compartment to hold maps or the like and the wallet had stuck there. Three different people had searched that compartment. Whew, what a relief!

At Mt Dare we paid $1.85 per litre for diesel and moved on. We bypassed Dalhousie Springs as all of us had been there before and we were on a mission to get as far in to the desert as we could on our first day. The bypass track around the Spring Creek Delta was in operation due to rain the week before, and that put an extra distance on the odometer. At Purnie Bore we all had a hot artesian shower and I took the opportunity to do some washing. We startled a mob of camels soon after we were on the track again and twelve kilometres later I found an open space in between the dunes suitable for a campsite. That night I fired up the Starry Night program on my laptop and we spent a while looking at the different stars in the crystal clear night sky. Day three of our trek and we were going to meet up with another participant, who was coming over from Birdsville on his own, driving a Landcruiser 100TD Auto IFS. I had prearranged to meet him at a certain spot. We had been keeping in contact via satellite phone and HF Radio and he had been talking to participants in vehicle number two, driving their highly modified Landcruiser 80TD.

Not long after midday the fella driving the 100 came through on the UHF radio as he was now in range and quite close to us. So we waited for him.

I had planned a different route to get to the centre but now the scene had changed, as we were at least 50km from where I had planned to head north. A German couple, who were hell bent on driving the desert without much experience of desert conditions at all, hardly any recovery gear and no communications, had accompanied him from Birdsville. I had to rethink my trip strategy as arrangements were now out of sequence.

After a chat and pleasantries I got a compass bearing off the map reader in vehicle number two who had the laptop running at all times and connected to the GPS. I used this method of another map-reader so that I did not have to have my laptop running all the time and so that I could concentrate on finding the best way through the dunes.

We set off to the north along the ridge of a dune. The German couple took off in their Troopcarrier, heading west. We were bouncing along over the Spinifex when someone remarked over the radio that the Troopcarrier was stationary on top of a dune. I said that they were probably stopping for photographs and kept on going. My companions were worried about this couple and said so repeatedly over the air waves and by the time the Troopcarrier was almost out of sight I relented and we turned back to see if help was needed.

Troopcarrier going nowhere
Troopcarrier going nowhere

Yes, help was needed. The vehicle was stuck on the crest of a dune. It then came to light that the Troopcarrier had no synchromesh on first gear and the driver had no idea how to double clutch to get the necessary gear. His wife was in tears when we returned. So we extricated the vehicle from its predicament and he was given a quick Driver Training lesson. I had to make fresh plans now as the afternoon sun was dropping and so decided to retrace our path back to Erabena Airstrip, where we made camp for the night. After that initial 5-kilometre trek, off track in the desert, there were some doubts by my companions as to whether they should travel the distance to the centre. I had emphasised that it would be hard going but this first taste seemed like it may be too hard. In the end however, they all agreed to continue the journey the following morning.

We had a pleasant camp and I found some fresh dingo tracks close to camp the following morning but had heard no howling during the night. After saying goodbye again to the overseas tourists and leaving them to their own devices, we drove along a formed track to the abandoned Erabena Oil Well and inspected the remains of the operations there. Here I dropped my tyre pressures down to 13psi on the truck and 10psi on the trailer. I regarded both as cold tyre pressures as the tyres had not warmed up yet. Then I took a bearing direct to the Geographical Centre and we were into the rough stuff.

The Rough Stuff
The Rough Stuff

I do think that unless you have experienced cross-country driving, it is difficult to appreciate just how hard it can be. In the desert your brain is working overtime as you have to make snap decisions as your journey progresses so that you take the right path and do not get bogged. It is also better to follow in the tracks of the leading vehicle even if it seems as if the trip leader is taking the wrong approach. This way the impact on the environment is minimal and it also helps you to stay in touch. In this scenario I found at one stage that the vehicles following were out of sight over in another swale, making their own way. Almost every square metre of the desert looks exactly the same as the next square metre and even with constant radio communications it is very easy to get lost. I found that even with me driving at an average speed of under 10kmh that with a few kilometres I was that far ahead of the convoy that I had to stop and wait for them to catch up. At times they were out of sight and on the other side of a dune.

The Hard Yard
The Hard Yard

During the course of the morning I heard a loud CLUNK noise under the truck. Then again a few seconds later and so I stopped immediately. It transpired that the rear nut of the Right Hand Radius Arm (suspension arm) had worked its way loose and had fallen off. I had stopped just in time and the rubber bushes were still in place. A search of the track rendered nothing and the desert claimed another piece of fabricated metal. Luck was on my side however, as I found a nut and washer in my toolbox, which fitted. Whew!

We came across a shot line and after looking at the map decided to take it to the east and then head north along another one. It wasn't my preferred option but I was being conciliatory and was tired as well. I found an open space in the Spinifex at 3.30pm and it was time to camp.

The next day we broke camp at around 8am and kept on heading east along the shot line. It was very overgrown in places and the pace was slow. At the end of this line we found another shot line heading north. At first it was hardly discernable and followed along the crest of a dune but eventually it smoothed out and we were able to maintain speeds of up 15kmh! We passed a herd of 12 camels as well as three lone bull camels as pointed out by my mate.

When we were about 5km as the crow flies, from the co-ordinates of the centre, I requested another bearing and away we went back across the rough stuff again. Soon after, on top of a high dune crest, I could see an object stick up from behind a dune and declared that it looked as if we were on the right track. We arrived at the centre mast at 12noon, on 5th May 2006. 

Geographical Centre Simpson Desert
Geographical Centre Simpson Desert

There are a number of plaques set up at this spot and about 200 metres away there is another plaque stating that that particular spot is the centre. Even so my GPS was showing a different co-ordinate to the one stated. We have to rely on the technology from the USA with regards to satellite navigation and it is rumoured to be deliberately off course by up to 100 metres or so. It did not matter though, as we had achieved our goal.

                            

                                                           Simpson Centre 4th July 1987


                   
                                   Geographical Centre Marker, Simpson Centre 2006

I picked a rather dismal looking campsite in a clearing down in the swale, to the west of the centre marker. There were two low Mulga trees but they provided no real shade and we had to erect our own. The day wasn't hot though but the flies soon found us. We unhitched the trailer, set up camp, had a bite to eat and then I set off driving in a northerly direction. My mate came with me. I did a sweep of around 20 kilometres to the north and then to the south looking for a likely place that we may have planted our marker. But came up with nothing.

Thank goodness for modern technology! We had driven to the north at first and crossed over a few dunes and then turned around. I asked my passenger where he thought our camp was. He made a guess and so did I. In this sea of red sand and dead Spinifex clumps everything looked the same. We were both wrong. Not by far, I might add. Our trusty GPS guided us back to our camp.

I wanted to spend another day looking for the marker but that night there was grumbling in the camp about spending a whole day out there with only our own shade and lots of flies. My main purpose of this journey was to find the marker we had planted there all those years ago but some of the body language in the camp was decisively unfriendly and to keep things on an even keel I decided that we would return to the French Line the next day. This made everyone happier. I got the distinct impression that my companions were uncomfortable out there in the never-never. We decided to go for a night walk with our torches to see what life we could find along the dune sands. There were some fresh skink tracks and a number of beetles were busy going about their business. Hopping mice are also plentiful in the desert and we found many signs of their activities.

We broke camp early the next morning and set off back along our tracks to the shot line. Where that petered out we had discussed an alternative route to the French Line. My gut feeling was that we should just head due south but once again I was being conciliatory and played along with the idea to access another shot line 9 kilometres away.

It took two and a half hours to reach that shot line. Along the way we came across a desert soak. The soak was dry but the trees growing there and some grasses were alive and had a tinge of green. We assumed that this could have been one of the water holes the ancients used when traversing the desert in wetter times.

We eventually reached the shot line as depicted on our maps as a Cleared Line but it turned out to be so overgrown that it was possibly worse to drive, than the country we had just traversed. After about half an hour of really hard driving, where the pace was under 5kmh, I decided that I had had enough of being conciliatory and swung the truck south and headed away from the shot line. There were protests over the radio but I said that those who wanted to continue along the shot line path could do so on their own, as I was going south.

The terrain became better after a while and we were following along and on top of sand hills. We stopped at 4pm in a clearing on the side of a sand hill having progressed 73km for 8 hours of driving. We were now 27km from the French Line. We were all pretty tired that night and turned in before 9pm. My Nissan and the trailer were holding up well although I had lost part of the safety chain during the day. A part of the jockey wheel had also come loose and had fallen off and had by chance been found when we had stopped for morning smoko that morning. I would have to make some alterations to this set-up, if a further trip like this one was envisaged.

Hopping Mouse Tracks

We broke camp at 7.45am and continued on our way south. A south wind had sprung up and was blowing quite fiercely by mid morning. We were lucky that we were driving in flatter country now and there was lots of windswept sand about. I managed to pick a track along the dunes and over the rises and along the tree lined flood outs. We saw dog prints and small birds and wondered where they got their water. We came across a 1979 survey camp where old 44-gallon drums had been left behind to litter the desert. One drum still had some diesel in it. Other bits of scrap were lying about as well and the Landcruiser 80 picked up a slither of steel and the tyre had to be plugged. We arrived on the French Line at 10.30am and headed for the Knolls Track intersection, which lay 8km to the east. The sand, blown by the strong wind, had by now obliterated any vehicle tracks along the French Line and it looked as if we were travelling over virgin country. We spent time at the Approdinna Attora Knolls have a look around and I climbed to the top, a feat which I could not have done the last time I was there. The Knolls Track was very bouncy and speed had to be kept low. We found some trees along the way for a shaded lunch stop. On the Rig Road the corrugations were horrific. We drove 13 kilometres down that track, which crossed a few dunes, and then came on to a flat. We made camp at 4pm. Will see where the track takes us tomorrow. We are all looking forward to camping by some water. We saw no one else today. With the high south winds all day our tracks will soon be obliterated and no one will be the wiser of our passing by. Rang Jude. In bed by 9.30pm.

This morning we made for Kallakoopah Creek. We had a good run south. Then I decided not to go to Marianda Bore as the track was very washed out. Took the track to the east and found Kallakoopah Creek. We tried to drive down Kallakoopah Creek but soon got bushed by salt pans. There were some old tracks to follow but they all ran nowhere. We backtracked to the T intersection and then decided it was too hard to do more cross country driving to access the co-ordinates which had been given to me. So reluctantly we turned around and headed back in our tracks to the Rig Road and Knolls Track where we camped for the night. We had intended to explore the possibility of cross country driving from Kallakoopah to the Warburton Track but decided to leave that for another time.

Today we saw three lone bull camels and another herd of about 15 camels. We also saw some wedge tail Eagles and a large feral cat. There are lots of rabbit warrens in the dunes.  After a feed I drank some of my firewater I had brought along and promptly fell asleep in my chair.

The next morning we were back on the Rig Road just before 8am. The road is a tad better now with some corrugations. It followed the dune corridor for a while and then it crossed over a number of dunes. Some of the dunes had sand blows on them. A few were hard to get over and when we reached the very last large dune, just prior to the K1 line intersection, I got stopped three quarters of the way up. I must say that I was attempting to cross a sand blow of around 5 metres above the normal road surface. I managed, with some degree of difficulty, to reverse down and turn the truck around. Then I attempted the crossing from another angle. I bogged down on the first part of the dune in powder-like sand. I aired the tyres down to 9 psi and with some digging and mats in front of the wheels I managed to drive the truck out and then over the next dune rise. I pumped the tyres back up to 25psi once on the K1 Line/Warburton Road.

                             A Captive of the Desert
                                                             A Captive of the Desert

It was an easy run to the Birdsville Track along the Warburton and Yelparawalina Tracks through some very dry and bleak country. Near Clifton Hills Station we saw a helicopter flying in the distance. At the Birdsville Track we saw the first other travellers is a week when a vehicle sped past in front of us at speed. Then we proceeded to Mungerannie Pub where we bought drinks, snacks and fuel. We had a chat with the owner, John Hammond, who confirmed that Kallakoopah Creek was bone dry. We then set off for Clayton Bore along the Birdsville Track. I had to refuel the last of my jerry cans along the way and we also collected lots of dry wood for the fire. It was dark when we arrived at Clayton Bore and as I turned off the road my right side headlight went out.

The owners of Clayton Station have set up Clayton Bore for travellers to use. It features a spa, an artesian shower, and toilet facilities. Clayton Station does not charge a fee but they do ask for a donation for the upkeep of these excellent facilities.

We all luxuriated in a hot shower and had tea while neighbouring travellers came over for a chat. They also brought marshmallows with them, which I enjoyed.

After packing up, the 100 series owner said goodbye to all and headed for his home in Brisbane. I packed the trailer and truck after breakfast and then I got the artesian spa going. When it was full I went and relaxed in it. It was very hot and my skin turned into to a lighter shade of pink. It is needless to say that I didn't stay in the spa for very long. Later in the morning we drove down to the wetlands where the artesian water flows into Clayton Creek, and looked at the scenery and some strange shaped volcanic rocks. I replaced a fuse and the headlight was working again. Then we were off to Marree and beyond. Along the way we drove past some road construction and a wetted road, which muddied up the truck and trailer. We called in at Farina to look at some graves in the old cemetery. We said our goodbyes there and parted company with the other participants. Back on the sealed road at Lyndhurst we aired the tyres up again to road pressures.

Driving along near Leigh Creek we saw a blast going off at the Coal Field. I called in to the viewing platform at the Coal Mine to have a look at some of the workings. Then we ate some over priced pies at Copley and later refuelled at Beltana Roadhouse. At Hawker I nipped in to the Art Gallery and later I dropped my mate off at his place.

A kilometre away from home the headlight fuse blew again and I snuck down the back streets with one light.

It had been good to get back out in to the desert again, especially to see how it had changed since my last visit. I had not achieved all of my objectives but nothing ventured is nothing gained. The one pertinent thing I gained from this trip was, that you are never too old to learn something, and I have learned some valuable lessons and will be taking a different approach when I tackle the desert again to find my marker.