It was time to start travelling again after my extensive rest in Cairns. I’d decided to see some of the interior, particularly the Simpson Desert and Flinders Ranges as this route would drop me out in South Australia and I could then travel the Great Ocean road between Adelaide and Melbourne before returning to Sydney. My immediate plan was to travel to Birdsville which is right in the interior and smack next to the Simpson Dessert, from Birdsville there a several options – the most travelled and famous is the old Birdsville Track taking you south west from Birdsville down into South Australia along the edge of the Simpson and through the Sturt Stony Dessert. This is a remote unsealed track but nowadays is well graded and busy with travellers, you can do the Birdsville track in a 2WD vehicle (with good tyres and clearance) these days. The other options are the French Line across the Simpson which is more challenging but again busy these days, particularly this time of year which is the best to travel.
From Cairns to Birdsville is a fair drive of around 1,800km (1,000 miles) and I took it easy to start with, mainly because I needed to source more spares and equipment to make sure I was prepared for the outback and the dessert. The motor had performed excellently up until now with some challenging circumstances during the trip and I felt confident it was mechanically up to the challenge. Also I’d gained a lot more experience with difficult remote driving, particularly in sand and felt all round I knew the motor a lot better now. But I was still missing a few things to feel prepared - my biggest fear was not getting stranded alone, I had enough food, water and fuels to last comfortably for 2 weeks, no my main fear was breaking down and needing recovery in the desert as this would cost many thousands of dollars - and that’s just to get dragged to the nearest small garage which still may not be able to fix your problem. So with this in mind I bought spare engine belts (fan, water pump etc), spare radiator hoses, additional winch towing ropes with D-shackles, spare fuses and tested spare wheels and jacks. I already had my full toolbox with lots of spare bits of pipe and ties, handy if you need to repair a burst brake pipe etc and I knew enough mechanics to be able to fix minor problems on the road. Also of course I had the essentials already including a compressor and tire gages so you can reinflate your tyres after dropping down the pressure for gravel roads and sand, a good sand shovel and nice big fat tyres which are good in sand and less likely to puncher on the sharp stones. However I didn’t have a second spare wheel which is recommended and all government vehicles around Birdsville have to have a second spare tyre by law. I decided to try pick up a cheap second hand wheel on the way from some garage, luckily Landcruisers are common vehicles where I’m going so shouldn’t be a problem.
Townsville to Mount Isa road
As I travelled inland from Townsville to Mount Isa the land started to get flatter, the roads straighter and trucks got bigger. This is truly the land of the road trains now. Large cattle trucks dominate, some with 3 full length trailers and over 50 wheels stretching the vehicles to over 50 metres in length. The road wasn’t bad, a sealed highway now but still rough in places – rougher than the worst bits of the Bruce Highway running up east coast of Queensland.
Even on large highways like this it’s tiring driving, especially at night. Not because of traffic, the road is quiet at night but because of the animals crossing the road, especially Kangaroos. You have to keep a continuous vigilance and the frequent corpses littering the road make sure you don’t forget. 90% of dead animals on the road were Kangaroo’s but I also saw Emu’s and big black boars. When it was quiet I deployed the large halogen spot lights on the front of vehicle for the first time which lit up the road hundreds of metres in front like daylight. Of course music on long drives like this is essential and the motor had a good stereo system which I could plug my ipod into containing a good chunk of my music collection.
One evening driving in the dark and keeping my eyes out for a place to camp for the night I found this Rest Area beside a weir 1.5km off the road. You would miss it if you weren’t looking for it but it turned out to be an Oasis in the outback. A large weir of water packed with ducks, mowed lawns and toilet, cooking facilities along its edge. I drove in at night surprised to find a whole bunch of campers, caravans and 4WD campers all enjoying this oasis in the country. It was such a nice spot I stayed for 2 nights, to rest from driving and catch up on blog writing and correspondence.
The next day a fully kitted out Landcruiser towing a double wheeled caravan rocked up beside my camp. A large gruff man jumped out with a shock of white hair and proceeded to throw long rope with a weight on the end high up into the tall gum trees surrounding the water. He then started yanking the branches and after a while having not been successful he proceeded to get out a chain saw and cut down several low hung branches. He was gathering wood for a fire we would enjoy that night. I guess no rangers going to catch you here, were in the country now! I was used to the more controlled parks of the East Coast. His name was Ross a first generation Scotsman travelling with his wife and they had been on the road for 19 years! He sold most of his farm near Byron Bay and retired when he was 48 and been travelling ever since. They had travelled all around Australia and I spent an hour with Ross that afternoon hunched over maps going over best roads and routes to travel, he also knew all the best free camping spots on my journey which I noted studiously on my Hema map. This is the kind of travelling lore you will never read in Lonely planet or from any map, absolutely invaluable!
Mount Isa to Windorah
As I turned south from Mount Isa down to Birdsville the country started stretching out and getting drier, the roads got smaller, still sealed but narrow so extra caution was needed to get out of the way of oncoming road trains. In most places you need to pull over and completely stop to let them by, giving them plenty of berth as their many trailers can drift on the road like crabs so the last trailer can be many metres across the road when it passes. Also keep your UHF (CB) radio tuned to channel 40 to hear the truckers and try to get some warning of approaching land trains.
Windorah to Birdsville
I took a diversion around Windorah to get to Birdsville as the track down from the north was closed. The distances between towns and fuel stops was increasing and can stretch over 300km so I stocked up with fuel, filling all spare tanks. And of course stock up with nice fresh filtered water as the bore water in remote parts is drinkable but smells like eggy farts (more lore from Ross)! Bore water has a sulphurous smell to it like rotten eggs which didn't sound pleasant .
I camped the night at Coppers Creek just outside Windorah, a largish river with free camping spots along its shores. The water didn’t seem to be flowing and was obviously quite low with the usual outback watering hole colour of permanent brown mud. It was a lovely spot to spend the night, the only troublesome thing being the flies! Now it has been a relief to get away from the mosquitos and sand flies of the coast which I’m truly grateful for… but they have been replaced with outback flies… oh my god! Although they don’t seem to bite much they swam around you in clouds and like demented torturers keep going for your mouth and eyes which drives you crazy! Alas and too much relief I’ve now found the true nature of the little head net I’d inherited from the previous vehicle owner. I shall never mock such silly looking things again!
In Windorah, a small outback town of one pub and fuel station, I found my second spare wheel at the service station. The owner had an old Landcruiser rim with tyre on which he sold me for $100. The tread wasn’t much good but it would do as an emergency second spare.
As I headed out of Windorah the road soon turned to gravel and there was nothing else now until Birdsville 370km away. This would certainly be the most remote I’ve ever been. The track was well graded but rough in parts with big stones and corrugations that made you feel like your teeth were being rattled out of your head, stones and bull dust make up the road as this track passes over the outskirts of the Sturt Stony Dessert. The surrounding country flattened out even more into vast stretches of stony red dessert looking similar to pictures of Mars sent back by the rovers, except for the tuffs of dried yellow grass here and there. I can see how the Sturt Stony Dessert got its name, a pebble dashed landscape with occasional sand dunes and tuffs of vegetation looking like someone has taken a shovel and evenly spread pebbles and rocks over the landscape, amazing and to think the geology here hasn’t changed much for billions of years and is the oldest surface on the planet.
The main wildlife here are kangaroos, dingos, cattle and wild cats. Yes wild domestic cats which have gone feral. I saw a wild cat one night outside the motor trying to get the scraps from my left out dishes, after hearing the commotion outside I peered out with my torch from the safety of the vehicle and it just looked like your average grey and white moggy. After that encounter I didn’t leave anything outside at night – all rubbish, dishes and any kind of food stored in the vehicle from now on!
The temperature was getting hot during the day with clear blue skies and a punishing sun but it was a dry heat so even though it was well above 35c it didn’t feel so uncomfortable - as long as you kept your hat on and cowered from the midday sun. The nights got nippy indeed, I had to use all my spare blankets one night just to keep warm.
I stopped for some lunch under the shade of a lonely tree in the desert, shade is getting hard to come by so when I saw this little tree a 100 metres from the road I drove to it and parked right under it… lovely for a spot of lunch I thought. I ate the last of my fresh yoghurt and fruit from the little 12v fridge I had in the back wondering when I would taste such delicacies again. This place was amazingly quiet apart from when the wind blows, which it does often and can be quite strong. The good news is the wind drives the flies away and it can also throw up the most amazing dust eddies along the road.
After lunch I dropped the pressure on all 4 wheels from over 40 down to 22psi as it was mostly stony gravel roads from now on. Dropping the tyre pressure significantly reduces chances of puncture on the sharp stones and increases your traction. Yes it also slightly increases the chance of side-wall punctures but keep your speed low and take it easy and you shouldn’t have much problems. Too many people batter over these roads doing 100kmh or more and wonder why they keep ripping tyres in two. I travel around 70kmph on smoother bits slowing down to 40kmh during bumpy rough bits, mainly because it was too bloody uncomfortable to go faster! yes it will take me more time but I’m far less likely to rip tyres or bust my suspension.
It was starting to get late and I was about halfway between Windorah and Birdsville so I started to look for somewhere to camp for the night. I knew from talking to feller in Windorah there was a great rest area coming up that was on top of a hill with great views over the surrounding country. And there it was, I could see the picnic shelter and toilet block against the horizon on top of this hill so decided to head for it.
There was no one around and I had the hill to myself for the night. This spot had the most fantastic views and you could see a good distance in all directions. To the South East I could see the great Sturt Stony Dessert disappearing into the distance and to the West the start of the Simpson Desert. I must have been able to see 40 miles and there wasn’t a sole about. I knew from the map the road I came in on that passes east / west was the only track within 150km in any direction and there certainly weren’t any houses or stations either. As the sun was setting and I looked out over the vastness of the landscape I realised this is the most remote I’ve ever been and there was no traffic on the road below me… there is truly nothing out there... not for a very long distance in any direction! Just little me and my truck on top of this hill overlooking the vastness.
It was quite a chilly night and I woke to strong wind outside and a lovely clear sunrise. Good thing about the wind was it kept the flies at bay so I could enjoy the magnificent sunrise with my coffee in piece.
Birdsville population 120 which swells to 7,000 once a year during the Birdsville races in September, which it’s famous for. It has one pub, one general store with fuel, air strip, caravan park and a hell of a lot of bull dust! There are signs as you approach the town asking you kindly to stop your motor to allow the bull dust to fall off your tyres before entering the town! I arrived and booked into the caravan park for 2 nights, they boasted the best showers in Birdsville and had powered camping sites. I deployed the tent for the first time since Cairns as I wanted to relax and have a couple of nights good sleep. Birdsville has plenty of power and to my surprise mobile reception which allows me to get this blog updated and check emails. The water here is all from bores underground and is perfectly drinkable but smells like eggy farts. Sulphur gas from the surrounding rocks leaks into the water as it comes up through the bore giving it the smell, its fine to drink and tastes ok as long as you can get past the smell. I’m just glad I stocked up with nice filtered water for drinking before I arrived!
I dearly hope I don't need this...
And its now nice to have the security of a second spare!
I set up camp next door to a really interesting chap called Sully who is a WW2 veteran of 92 and still going strong. He travels to Birdsville every year for Anzac’s day and meets lots of his old mates who all camp in the caravan site here and he is a local legend who has organised many Anzac events and memorials. He was in North Africa as part of Monty’s Eighth Army and fought at Tubruk and then got taken POW in Greece before being freed at end of the war. Interesting as my grandad fought in the Eighth Army and I wonder if their tracks crossed back then. Sully also helps train the army on desert survival and has a Series 60 Landcruiser which he bought new 24 years ago and a hand built custom made trailer especially adapted for desert travel. He knows the Simpson Desert really well and often accompanies the local police if their rescuing anyone out there and has spent 3 months by himself in the desert with his Landcruiser and trailer.
Needless to say the stories were amazing and the tips he gave me on travelling out here invaluable again. Right time to close the laptop and go check out the Birdsville pub