A 1987 Expedition: First published in 4×4 Australia Magazine 1988. Republished here 2002. Updated photos 2016
We had always nurtured the notion to visit the Simpson Desert since the early seventies when we started exploring Australia. Somehow the trip was moved back time and time again as we explored the far north instead. Magical names like “French Line” and “QAA Line”, “Poeppel Corner” and “Big Red’ milled around our heads as we dreamed about what it would be like out there.
Having been mildly lost once on the fringe of the Gibson Desert and having done a great journey through the Namib Desert on the west coast of Africa, our plans formulated for a trip of a lifetime down through the Simpson. As fate would have it, by the time we started planning our journey, just about everyone had been through and across the desert, and we, being avid off-roaders, decided that there just had to be that little extra challenge.
After reading books by Cecil Madigan and Warren Bonython and a recent article by Dennis Bartell, we decided to visit the Geographical Centre of the Simpson Desert and to do a north/south crossing. Now this centre, rightly or wrongly, has been suggested to be Latitude 25 degrees 22 minutes South and Longitude 137 degrees 5 minutes east, by Messrs Bonython and Bartell and for our purpose we chose that position.
The plan was to enter the desert by way of an access track through Atula Station in the Northern Territory, and drive on a compass bearing to the centre, then take the shortest route to Poeppel Corner, where three States meet and then head off along the French Line, the QAA line and Big Red to Birdsville.
At first we had mobs of takers for the trip. When one mentioned the Simpson eyes lit up and all were in readiness to take off at that minute. When, however, we gave further details of the proposed journey, participants died away like the wind at sunset. In the end it was only ourselves and our friend, Dave Hodgkinson, who were to brave the elements driving our Suzuki Sierra 1.3’s across the wilderness.
It had taken twelve months of careful planning for all requirements such as fuel and water quantities, food, spares, tools and pre-trip repairs. We replaced wheel bearings and kingpin bearings on both vehicles. Dave replaced his original suspension with a Lovells kit whilst I had the springs reset by the local spring works, keeping the original shock absorbers which were still in good condition. Our Suzuki was using a bit of oil as a result of high mileage in a short time as well as being used for mud racing on weekends and so we replaced the oil rings. The bearings were still in good condition and are still in use today.
I had estimated that at the worst we should not use more than 20 litres per 100km and that the maximum distance from Jervois Station (last fuel stop) to Birdsville would be 800km.( I was to be proved wrong on the fuel consumption). So we carried 160 litres of petrol each, 50 litres of water each, three spare tubes each, one spare casing each, enough patches for 50 punctures, one front and one rear main spring leaf, HF Outpost Radio Telephone, sextant, small computer, spare wheel bearings, rubbers, nuts, bolts, and all the other paraphernalia which you have to carry when you venture off into the unknown. Fit all of that, plus enough food for 21 days, cooking and camping gear, as well as camera equipment, reference books and winter woolies into a Suzuki Sierra 1.3 High roof and you have a minor headache on your hands. We made up a frame to carry six jerry cans behind the front seats to give us the fuel capacity. We had already installed stainless steel water tanks and a alloy tucker box which I had built myself as well as an inside roof rack to accommodate clothes etc in the space made by the high roof. We must have done 40 to 50 trial packs before hitting the right combination.
We left a detailed trip schedule with Judith’s employer with an emergency date of the 10th of July. If he had not heard from us by that time then they had better activate a search party. I don’t think that her work mates took this thing quite seriously. With all this organising under our belts we set off for the Simpson.
I had obtained permission from the owners of Atula Station on the fringe of the Simpson, to cross their property and to draw water from the last bore before entering the desert. We arrived at Atula Station on the morning of the 30th June 1987, a day later than anticipated. While we were busy shutting a gate a Landcruiser came boring down on us. It was the Andersons. “You’re late” said Mrs. Anderson. “We expected you yesterday. I had it written in my diary”. After introductions and pleasantries the Andersons gave us valuable information with regards to the area we were venturing in to. They also told us that they thought that we were nuts attempting such a journey but that we had the right vehicles for the job. They used 5 Suzukis for their mustering needs. At least there was some encouragement!!
That afternoon we spent our time at Bore no.6, about 80 kilometres south of the homestead. We did all the necessary washing, filled our water containers and had the last shower we were to have for a week.
Around the bore the flies drove us insane but the thousands of budgerigars and zebra finches that flocked to the water made up for anything else. It was not long before they got used to our presence and the cameras clicked away. An old Chevy Blitz lay nearby in ruin and we wondered what it’s history was. Then we set off to look for a camp site near the electric fence on the boundary of the property. Along the way we were to look out for the remnants of a Bluestreak rocket which was fired from the Woomera Rocket Range in 1966.The electric fence is charged up to 8000 volts by two solar panels and runs for 12 kilometres across the dune channels. It’s main function is to scare off marauding wild camels. According to Roy Anderson it was not very effective as the camels got smart and walked to the end of the fence and around. We saw groups of camels inside the property boundary. A dead camel which has been zapped by the volts was lying near the fence.
It was just on dark when we arrived at the fence and after a long day we were asleep before the stars lit up. Normally we drive until 4pm in the afternoon which gives time to set up camp and to relax as well as a vehicle inspection for cracks and things which have rattled loose. When on main thoroughfares we normally leave the road and head bush for at least 2km for safety reasons. You can still do that in the Territory as fences are few and far between and as long as you take your rubbish with you and extinguish that camp fire.
Day two and we rose early and went looking for the rocket. A marked track showed us the way. After the obligatory pics were taken we turned the vehicles around, took a compass bearing due west, held the steering wheel firmly and drove off straight into the spinifex and red dune country.
By the tenth sand ridge we started to get an inkling of an idea of what our trip was going to be like. Dave gave us a forlorn look and asked “Can I go home now, please?”. The sand ridges were becoming dunes and the little spinifex bushes were becoming large spinifex clumps. Within the first two hours I had to winch the Suzuki off a spinifex clump. and we had covered only eight kilometres!!
I was having fun. This was the real thing. We were averaging 4km/h and Judith was hanging on for dear life to the “sissy bar” on the dash. We were lifting wheels on every spinifex clump. The bigger the dunes got the more attempts had to be made to cross over. Our BF Goodrich Mud Terrains were digging in quite a bit but still giving lots of traction. Dave was doing better with his Desert Duellers.
We were heading towards some lakes marked on our maps which we had though might be full of water as good rains had fallen recently. Since the number of birds sighted, as we drove further west, seemed to increase, we expectantly drove over the next dune and the next and the next. Just to see another dune straddling our path.
We made camp at 4pm having progressed 34km for 8 hours of driving. We were totally exhausted. I was due to refuel early in the morning as my gauge was showing close to empty. The day had certainly been eventful and we were thankful for the rest period. We had seen a number of camels during the day and quite a few birds. Now it was time to take some readings with the sextant to pinpoint our position. As we were taking the readings so late in the afternoon our accuracy would be questionable but it would give us an indication of our approximate position. We were asleep by 7.30pm that night.
The following morning the sunrise temperature was .05 degrees Centigrade. Not quite freezing but definitely cold enough for us who reside year round in a tropical climate. A six dog night, we decided.
It was not long before we were back into the spinifex and within a short while Dave radioed for help. He was stuck on a clump. Our Warn 5000lb soon had him moving again. Then I had to refuel. 6.2km/l or 17mpg. Not bad, I thought. But today we were in the big dune country and progress would be slow and a lot harder. We found that the best way up the dunes was to zigzag up the wind blows to be able to reach the dune apex. The spinifex got worse in number and size and we bounced and bounced and bounced. The corridors between the dunes were covered in spinifex, gidgee, grevillea, saltbush, daisies and cassia. We also saw Simpson Desert Seagulls (Crows), budgerigars, galahs, finches, geckos, lizards and more camels. There were lots of dingo and emu tracks to be seen but we never got a glimpse of them at all.
This day was probably the hardest off-roading we had done for some time. I had to winch up a dune once as we became stuck at a precarious angle near the top. Dave provided the anchor on the other side. My fuel gauge was showing near empty again and I looked under the vehicle for possible leaks. This day we managed 57km. More sextant readings and we see that we are getting closer to our objective. We had missed the lakes however. Well………maybe we will visit them some other time. Not likely says Judith !!
I must say that Judith took all this pounding and jarring to her system, very well. Just the sort of things to make you forget about advertising deadlines. Judith was also responsible for all the meals on the trip and kept us well fed.
The third morning it dewed heavily inside and outside the tents and the temperature dropped to -2 degrees without freezing. We built a big fire of gidgee and tumbleweed to dry out our gear. The tumbleweed burns fiercely, but not for long, as it is severely dried out in the desert air. Luckily there was ample supply for our needs. This day we were hoping to get closer to the centre of the desert. Once again the going was rough but by now we knew what we were doing and could pick out easier driving terrain at a distance. At 2pm that afternoon I had to refuel again. 111km travelled and 37 litres of fuel used. It worked out to 3km/l or 33l/100km ! The gear lever had remained in first gear since leaving the station track. The only lever that had moved was the transfer lever from Low to High and back again.
I had definitely underestimated the roughness of the terrain. Would we make it to Birdsville? That was a bit of a worry. We took some more sextant readings and estimated that we were about 10km west of the centre of the desert. The following day we found out that we had actually driven over the point that we had calculated as the centre.
Not long after refuelling, Dave yelled out over the radio that he had made a discovery. A very faint seismic track was running north/east, south/west. We were elated in finding reprieve in driving conditions and sped along the track at breakneck speeds of up to 40km/h. Five kilometres further on the track ended abruptly at the base of a large dune. It was time to set up camp again and take more sextant readings. We had covered 63km for the day.
Day four and the early morning temperature dropped to -6 Centigrade. Judith had left a wet tea towel out over a bush and it was frozen solid. Both vehicles had ice up to 5mm thick on the roof and bonnet. Even our tent fly was frozen. It was here that our Suzuki’s starter motor started playing up. Sometime during the night a group of camels had walked right through the middle of our camp without touching or knocking anything over. It had been an 8 dog night, we decided.
We spent the morning taking numerous sextant readings including one at noon, to establish our latitude. Previously we had estimated our position incorrectly and with that we had overshot the centre. When we finally pinpointed our objective we packed up camp, put a bottle of champagne on ice in the Engel fridge, and set off for the centre. We retraced our steps for six kilometers along the seismic track and then three kilometres due north.
At 3pm on 4th July 1987 we planted our aluminium stand and plaque in what we believed was the Geographical Centre of the Simpson Desert. We planted the stand on a spinifex plain in the corridor between two dunes. The tripod was erected, champagne cork popped and many pics taken of us, the vehicle and the stand. We then buried the empty bottle alongside the stand with a message in it.
Back on the seismic track we made 20km before pulling up for the night to camp. We were very pleased with our efforts for the day and had an extra beer each out of our rations.
Day five and we rose quite late at 7am. The temperature was 0 degrees C. Not so cold, we thought, must be getting used to it. Soon we were out along the seismic track and after 5km turned south along a branch line of the track. But this track soon started to veer off in the wrong direction and it was back into the rough stuff again. This day proved to be the roughest of them all. We managed however, to do 60km in our eight hours of driving for the day. There were Suzi size holes in between the spinifex clumps. Driving was horrendous in the endless sea of spinifex. At 4.30pm we managed to find a clearing in the spinifex for our camp site. There I discovered three broken spring leaves on the right rear suspension and it was time to play bush mechanic again. I dug a hole in the sand under the Suzuki so that I could have easier access to the nuts and bolts. I reworked the springs so that I used one of the longer bits that were left over and clamped a front main leaf which we had brought along for emergency purposes to the rear main leaf and managed to get the lot held on by the U-bolts. This did look somewhat like wrought iron work around the porch but it held fast and saw us back to Darwin.
Dave was in his element giving me a hard time as he had fitted a new suspension and was getting far better fuel consumption out of his standard carburetor whilst my Weber carby was sucking the juice. I listened to his ramblings while working the spanners under the car. You just wait me lad, thought I, we are not out of the mire yet.
That evening Judith and Dave successfully made beer bread in the camp oven which I enjoyed once I had crawled out of my hole from under the vehicle. It was past midnight when we turned in.
On day six we had covered just eight kilometres when we came upon another seismic track. Now we were following this very faint track. First east, then south, then south east. Rains had fallen in the desert about a month prior and the dunes were covered in fields of yellow and white daisies. There were also many other wild flowers in bloom. The desert was starting to flatten out a bit with wider corridors between the dunes and we had a distinct feeling that we were closing in on Poeppel Corner.
The first salt lakes that we encountered were those of Mirranponga Pongunna. It was good to be able to get into two wheel drive again and in my exuberance to drive on this hard surface I decided to take a short cut across a corner of a small salt lake. I had been warned against such a folly and my actions nearly proved disastrous. We were doing about 100km/h when we broke the surface of the salt crust. From there on it was a frantic down changing of gears and sliding the transfer lever into low range at speed. Doing a huge U-turn and red lining it at 7000rpm we just managed to crawl out of the ooze in four wheel drive on to the hard surface again. This time the mud terrain tyre tread saved the day.
At 1.30pm we drove right over the top of the French Line, 27km west of Poeppel Corner. This track proved to be very bumpy probably due to tour operated buses with large wheel diameters or travellers towing trailers. There are also many travellers with high powered vehicles who insist on driving in two wheel drive mode and then axle-tramp corrugations into existence. This makes it quite difficult to get a run up to the top of a dune when it is too chopped up. Nevertheless we reached Poeppel Corner on Monday 6th of July 1987 at 3pm. There I discovered three broken springs on the left rear suspension. Now we had to take it gently gently to Birdsville. Shortly after reaching the QAA line and after having travelled 120km for the day we made camp and luxuriated ourselves with a shower as we still had plenty of water. Mind you, we were a bit on the nose by then.
Day seven and we were heading for Birdsville. The QAA line was just as bouncy as the French Line. I had to take things easy with the broken springs and only just made it over some of the higher dunes. Dave sped up ahead. About an hour later we found Dave at the bottom of a dune looking forlorn. Yep! He had broken a right rear main leaf spring. Luckily we still had a spare main leaf and three hours later Dave’s Suzuki was back on the track again. Much sweat and dust was mixed especially changing the pressed metal suspension rubber carrier.
Then rumble rumble and four Sydney based Range Rovers and a sole Landcruiser trundled over the dune. They stopped for a chat and went on their way again. The first human contact in a week!! We pushed on for Big Red and spotted a large feral cat along the way. It was gone before I could get my hands on the equaliser.
Just before sunset we approached Big Red. Dave made it three quarters of the way up. I made it a little further. The sand at the top was smooth and windblown. So as to save my vehicle from more strain I turned sideways along the dune and powered my way over the top using spinifex and grass for traction and lots of wheel spin. The track on the eastern approach looked easy but we were too tired to play games. Dave followed in my tracks and made it over in one go.
Then it was on to the gibber plains and heading for Birdsville. My fuel gauge was nudging towards empty and Dave refuelled from his last jerry can. In our wisdom we decided to wash the salt off our cars by driving through some puddles left by the recent rains. That was the closest we had been to getting bogged for days.
We pulled into Birdsville at 7.30pm on 7th July. It had taken eight days from Jervois Station. I had only 5 litres of fuel left in the tank and all six jerry cans were empty. Dave had quarter tank of fuel left. We had had no punctures for the entire trip.
We were grateful to get the last room in the Birdsville Pub and enjoyed a very good feed there as well. Later that night we raged with some 200 tourists till the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning I managed to obtain some Suzuki spring leaves from Peter Barnes, the local mechanic. They all drive Suzukis out there in the Channel Country. While I did another bush mechanics’ job on the springs, the others wandered around town taking pics and phoning all to say that we had crossed the desert and had arrived safe and well in Birdsville. At midday we said our goodbyes as Dave was heading for Brisbane and we were heading back to Darwin away from the cold weather. Eighty kilometres out of Birdsville the left hand front shock absorber broke in half. I removed it. After that it was plain sailing and we made it back to Darwin in 36 hours for the 2200km.
It had been a very worthwhile experience to drive through the Simpson and I am certainly looking forward to future forays into the desert. I doubt however if my travelling companions feel the same. We have called this way through the Simpson Desert, “The Spinifex Trail”, for all those who may be crazy enough to drive it in the future.