18.05.2013 28 °C
I awoke this morning to chilly overcast skies and then during my morning coffee it started to rain! Just a drizzle that the desert hungrily ate up as the drops hit the dry floor. I wasn’t expecting rain in the Simpson that’s for sure, but more worryingly if it carried on and got heavy it can cause flooding resulting in the tracks being cut-off. Occasionally during the year flooding swells the dry salt lakes and river beds and they become completely unpassable and this can happen any time up until July. The thought occurred to turn back then, I was about 170km in from Birdsville but the rain was very light so I kept an eye on the clouds and decided to carry on.
After 10km I came to Poeppel Corner a major junction of desert tracks and also the corner of 3 states, you have Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia all meet at this point. Originally this was only a Eucalyptus wood post placed by Augustus Poeppel in 1880 as part of his survey work for the South Australian government. The post was not seen again by Europeans until 1936 when self-proclaimed “ordinary bushman” Ted Colson and Aboriginal companion Peter Aim completed the first east-west crossing of the Simpson Desert with five camels. Ted Colson is a legend in these parts and a very interesting character, if you’re interested his biography it's here http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/colson-edmund-albert-9798
Twisting my limbs around the post it was possible to have a limb in each of the 3 states
Now the fun began, which track do I take out of here! It is not clear which track is the French Line and there are many crossing tracks here, some that loop around the nearby lake and come back to this spot. I needed to make sure I headed on the right track as I couldn’t afford to make a mistake and head down the wrong track for 50km and then have to backtrack as this would put my overall fuel situation at serious risk. I had a good map, the Hema 4WD map of the Simpson showing all the tracks with GPS coordinates at track junctions and I had my vehicle GPS system spitting out my precise longitude and latitude, plus I had my trusty compass. All three of these should be enough but I also wasted a bit of fuel driving up each branching track to confirm where it was heading, a worthy expense I deemed.
I finally got onto what I was 90% sure was the French Line heading West in a straight line over the dunes. I was paranoid until I was certain and stopped every 10km to check GPS settings and compass against the map, making sure I was heading in the right direction, this gave me comfort as I was certain after 20km I was on the right track.
After Poeppel Corner the dunes got bigger and the ruts got deeper, the going got very slow and didn’t get out of first gear for the rest of the day – up and down over the never ending dunes. I finally came to a junction where the Rig Road meets the French Line, it had sign posts confirming I was on the right track after all… phew.
I decided to take a small 4km detour down the Rig Road to explore the Approdinna Attora Knolls. The knolls are rare gypsum outcrops which once were the highest dune crests in the area. Due to their fragility and great scientific importance they fenced off but you can park and take the marked footpaths up them. They are sacred Aboriginal hills and Ted Colon thought he recognised them from Aboriginal songs when he passed this place with Peter Aims in 1936.
The sun was now setting so I decided to camp on the Rig Road just up from the knolls
It had been raining again during the night, nothing heavy but consistent all night but still there was no standing water anywhere, however my awning had collected a decent amount of water overnight. Ha! I thought - I’ve got the perfect desert water catcher here and diligently collected the water pooled in the awning and used to wash the dishes
I got under way and the going was still very slow, the dunes were big and the track was windy and ever so bumpy. Before setting off I had empties the Diesel jerry cans on the roof into the main tank. I had used about half a tank already and there was enough room to take the 2 Jerry cans, I was keen to lower the centre gravity which would help on the bumpy tracks and it was actually noticeable, the vehicle didn’t roll so aggressively from side to side.
The first challenge of the day came as a large dune approached. It was steep and high and you couldn’t get any speed up at the bottom due to the ruts. The first attempt stopped me, the motor running out of puff and speed under the load of the deep sand. The second attempt I tried a different path up and nearly made it, I was 1 foot from the making it over the rim of the dune and I got stopped, worse I got bogged and couldn’t reverse either. I’d made a school boy error - If you get stopped don’t keep trying, just stop take a breath and reverse gently backwards and try again from bottom. But instead I tried to push over the top, I was actually moving inch by inch wheels spinning and thought I would do it and be over the dune but alas not and all the efforts just compacted the sand under my axles and springs!, time to unstrap the shovel!
It took me nearly 2 hours of shovelling sand in the hot midday sun to get out. Even though I was near the rim there was no chance of going forward so I dug myself out backwards to get back down and try again. I got up after reversing back down by battering up and taking another hardly used side route. If someone had come along they would have dragged me out but I hadn’t seen anyone all morning on the French Line.
I carried on and was thankful for getting past that challenge when an even taller and steeper dune appeared in front - blimey I thought this one is steep! I failed on my first two attempts, the sand seemed deeper also and I wasn’t getting much traction at all. You lose more traction when sand is hot and it was the hottest part of the day so that wasn’t helping. There was only two tracks getting up and I’d tried both in vain. I’d considered cutting my own track up the dune to the side but it wasn’t any less steep and the vegetation growing on the dune would make it tuff. I considered my situation and it wasn’t looking good, I couldn’t get enough grip nor speed to get anywhere near the top of this dune and there was no way around. I thought this may just stop me and I would have to turn back and drive the 290km back to Birdsville but I didn’t like the thought of turning around as I was beyond half way now and I wasn’t certain my fuel would last going back!
I remembered a story I heard on Fraser Island – this chaps father owned an old Series 60 Landcruiser and he told the story of how his dad got the top of sand hill that had stopped all other vehicles by reducing the tyres right down to 10psi and using low box to crawl up like a traction engine, he amazed the onlookers as he chugged up very slowly and made it. So as a last resort I decided to give it a try and dropped all 4 wheels to 8psi. If you lower the tyres enough they act like a tracked vehicle, the surface area increase on the sand giving more grip and traction. I started at the hill in low gearbox 2nd gear and to my amazement and great joy it made it and chugged slowly all the way up – slipping a bit at the steepest section but not enough to stop the vehicle. Joy oh joy oh joy and on we go