17.05.2013 35 °C
So after talking to people and gathering information on current conditions I decided to cross the Simpson Desert via the French Line. The line was built by the French Petroleum company in 1962 as part of their oil exploration efforts in the Great Artesian Basin. The track is the most direct route across the desert and traverses directly across the tops of over 1200 red sand dunes and is nothing more that wheel tracks in the sand and tyres ruts over dunes, however nowadays its reasonably busy and at this time of year you can expect to see at least one vehicle per day. The desert is closed from December through to March every year when the temperatures gets extreme and vehicles start to breakdown in the heat, rangers have officially recorded 50c in the shade but locals will tell you it can get up to 60c in the shade, whether you believe this or not is up to you. The desert is one of the most arid in the world and the driest place in Australia which can hope for 15cm of rain per year if it’s lucky. The track is 550km between fuel and water stops between Birdsville at the East side to Mount Dare on the West. If you’re interested in more history and details of this track then check out the website http://www.exploroz.com/TrekNotes/Deserts/Simpson_Desert_French_Line.aspx. This page on the French Line gave me the inspiration for this crossing. I’m doing it in the reverse direction to what is laid out, which is fine but it is more difficult traversing the desert from east to west because of the way the dunes are formed. The Simpson is the largest dune desert in the world and is all parallel dunes 300 – 500km long running north-south created by the consistent south-westerly wind and this means the east side of the dunes are steeper and more difficult to climb with 4WDs. To attempt this crossing you need an equipped heavy 4WD with plenty of extra fuel, water and a powerful UHF CB Radio and ideally a satellite phone or emergency GPS rescue beacon. In retrospect I should have hired a satellite phone and if I come back here I certainly will next time. They are quite costly and I wasn’t planning on venturing far from the relatively busy track but would have been nice for the added security. I already knew that if I had a mechanical breakdown I would be hitching out of the desert as the cost of recovery would total more than 3 times my vehicles value!
I packed up and checked over the motor before saying goodbye to Sully and the rest of the people at the Birdsville caravan park. I topped up fuel and water and checked over my supplies and then headed off into the desert.
The first 35km out of Birdsville west is a good graded gravel track and this takes you as far as Big Red, a famous sand dune and the biggest on this track at 40m high. The gravel road ends here and it’s just tracks in the sand from now on. The track goes over Big Red and everyone is suppose to have a pop at this mega dune and try to drive over it but I decided to take the easier route over little red, I was being cautious as I had a long way to travel and didn’t want to strain the vehicle when I didn’t need to, the bravado points didn’t bother me much – I would get enough just completing this sandy journey
I had my tyres down to 20psi hot all round when I came to the second dune on the track about 300 metres past Big Red and the next parallel dune. It was very steep and tall and it stopped me dead on the first attempt – the engine running out of steam with the load of the sand and steepness of slope. Plus I was loaded with fuel and supplies weighing down the vehicle. A second attempt with more speed and power didn’t get me much further up before I had to reverse back down again. Blimey I thought, if I can’t even make it over this second dune what chance have I with the following 1198!
On the third attempt I tried a different tactic – I was losing traction at the steepest part and I couldn’t get enough speed to overcome this because of the large corrugations at the bottom so I lowered the tyres even further to 15psi hot all round and selected the low gear box and just started off slow in 2nd gear. The motor chugged up slowly and I could notice the extra traction in the tyres, it slipped at the steepest part but made it just!
The dunes were impressive with deep red sand and quite a lot of green vegetation growing over them. Apparently the desert is very green at the moment due to rains over last few years. During the 10 year draught recently the desert lost nearly all of hits vegetation and looked more like your typical sand dune desert in picture cards. But don’t let the greenery fool you this place I still very dry and hostile.
The dunes got a bit easier after the start and typically you’d get 200 – 300 metre flat stretches between dunes which gave you the chance to get out of first gear (high box). This stretch of the line called the QAA Line was quite busy and I passed 3 groups of vehicles all coming towards me. Several desert tracks merge into the QAA Line heading to Birdsville which is why it’s quite busy. The UHF radio was alive with chatter and I made myself known at the tops of big dunes by stopping with head lights on and broadcasting ‘’attention, single Landcruiser travelling east to west 20km from Big Red”. The UHF radio has line of sight range to about 10 – 15km and everyone uses channel 10 for comms. Channels 8 and 38 are reserved for emergencies only and have doctors, police and even stations managers listening in.
I had set off late at 11am from Birdsville planning an easy first day and it was already 5pm and I was tired so decided to pitch camp for the night. I had done 90km and the going was slow and tough in the dunes demanding a lot of concentration. You were in 1st and 2nd gear mostly so lucky to average 15mkh. But it was going well, I was taking it easy and the motor was taking it in its stride – apart from the second steep dune this morning I had no other dramas for the rest of the day. The track is straight over the dunes at right angles and seems to go straight forever. It’s quite flat in places between the dunes in the valleys and you can see evidence of lots of camp fires so I decided to stop in one for the night. Pitched camp and cooked my first diner in the Simpson.
I’d read about the amazing clarity to the air in the Simpson and it’s supposed to be one of the clearest star gazing places on the planet - they weren’t wrong, the clarity of the clouds and then the stars was phenomenal as if someone had turned up the contrast gage by a few notches. I saw the great Emu in the Milky way rise with astonishing brightness but I was too tired to wait out for the best show which comes later when the Milky Way rises to dominate the entire sky and was tucked up in bed by 7:30pm!
It was quite a chilly night, I had to use all blankets to keep warm but woke up to an amazing sunrise and with the sun the temperature rose quickly. I’d slept well out here, it was so quiet, the only noise being the occasional gust of wind whistling around the motor. I made coffee and had a relaxing morning before heading off about 10:30am. I wanted to take it easy and not get too tired driving each day, mainly for safety but also because I wanted to enjoy the desert. You can do this crossing in 2 to 3 nights and many people do but it’s exhausting and you don’t see much along the way.
The day went well and I passed another 2 convoys coming my way. I hadn’t seen anyone alone like I was and most vehicles were in tag-along groups of between 4 – 7. You often stop and chat with the lead vehicle coming the other way, a quick exchange on route conditions and known traffic. A few raised eyebrows when they realised I was alone!
I hadn’t seen much wildlife so far, a few small lizards scurrying across the road and a skinny looking Dingo which appeared around my camp as I was cooking. It looked dejected and hungry, probably been turfed out of its group to fend for its self. It scurried off when it saw me but didn’t go far and I spotted it lying down behind a spiniflex probably planning to return to my campsite after dark to seek scraps.
Of course out here you leave nothing outside, rubbish, dishes and all foods inside the motor. I was told not to even leave shoes outside as you may find one missing in the morning, the Dingo’s will take one shoe off into the desert and leave you puzzling over the one left! I really wanted to see camels and possibly wild horses out here but nothing yet. The wildlife in the Simpson consists of Camels, Wild Horses, Wild Cats, Dingo’s and various small mammals on the ground. There are Goanna and smaller lizards and you may even see a Western Brown Snake… although I wasn’t so keen on spotting one of them. There are a few birds, but mainly the large desert eagles rule and are impressive. The vegetation is mainly Spiniflex and upside down trees, the Spiniflex have thorns and also scratch your paint as you brush along them on the track. I always kept the shovel handy at night and had the wood axe nearby when I slept just in case you get unwanted visitors in the night.
After 150km in I came across my first salt lake. I’d never seen a dry salt lake before and from a distance it looks like there is water in the lake but as you get closer you realise its patches of salt lying on top of the dry lake bed. The track runs along the side of the lake for about 20km and is slow and bumpy but whatever you do you must NOT be tempted to drive on the lovely smooth lake bed. Apparently the conditions underneath can be wet and muddy and before you know it your vehicle could sink hopelessly to its belly.
It was getting late so I pitched camp about 20m off the track next to the salt lake. Unfortunately there would be no stars tonight as it was overcast so after cooking some diner I hit the sack early again. As I crawled into the back of the nice safe steel Landcruiser I couldn’t help thinking how it now felt more like a life pod than a vehicle, without the protection and supplies that it provides I would surely perish out here pretty quickly.