Extreme 2006 Simpson Desert Trip

Thursday, Jan 25, 2018 at 20:58

Stephen L (Clare) SA

In the 1980’s we purchased our first four-wheel drive vehicle, a Toyota SR5 4Runner and from then on have ventured out into some very special and remote locations around Australia. One such destination that lured me in from the very start was the Simpson Desert. Like any first time traveller through the Simpson, you will be hit by one of two impressions, the first and one we have heard from many people, - “why the hell did we travel through this lifeless patch of red sand and can not wait to get the hell out of there and vow to never return "

Not being disrespectful to city people, but most times the above comments are from people that live in large city areas from around Australia and need the comfort and security of other people around to make them feel safe and hate the thought of being in a remote and isolated location when there are no other people around for hundreds of kilometres.

The second impression that struck me and lots of other people, is the red sand and dust gets into your blood and you just want to keep going back, time after time to experience the true Australian Outback and are always planning another outback adventure. Over the following years we headed back into the Simpson Desert every year, each time travelling a different track or direction of travel between Dalhousie Springs and Birdsville. By the early 2000’s we had then travelled every track that can be driven on in the Simpson and that then got me researching into every aspect of the Simpson Desert, from the original Aboriginal people that would travel through this area, the first European travellers that tried to cross the desert, and then the push to find oil and gas into this very remote part of Australia.

One book that I kept returning to was the book written by the late Griselda Sprigg – “DUNE is a four letter word”, and one area had me intrigued – the largest rock covered hill surrounded by a sea of red sand in the middle of the Simpson desert that was to be named after Reg Sprigg’s Company, Geosurvey Hill. As hard as I tried to research the area, it seemed an almost impossible task and then by pure luck, made contact with a very helpful chap in Melbourne, Ron Smith who had made the trip there in 2003. Over countless phone calls and emails, I was able to see first hand what we would be in for.

Anyone that reads the data recorded when using OziExplorer will gain valuable information about an area that they intend to travel and what Ron’s track file showed me that it was going to be a hard trip from the moment that I started to study his track data. When you see data that shows you are travelling 6 to 8 kilometres per hour, hour after hour told me this was low range country and would be heavy on fuel.

In the mean time I had just read about a new Simpson Track that had just been officially open to the public in early 2004, so while planning for my Geo trip was still taking place, We did the Hay River trip in 2005 and at that stage were the 190th group of people to experience this northern section through the Simpson Desert. While camped at Batton Hill, a vehicle drove in from Alice Springs, and as you do, I went up for a chat with the solo driver and it turned out that it was Ken Williamson, the chap that actually was the first person to drive and plot the new Hay River Track. During our chat, I told Ken about my next real adventure and where I was planning to travel, and he asked if he was able to be part of my small group, to which I said yes.

With lots of planning to undertake I was ever searching for further information about this unknown area in the Simpson and I was able to get hold of a very hard book to find – “Walking the Simpson Desert” by Warren Bonython, and one term that Warren often spoke about, was the term “Sky Highway”. I did not know it at the time, but we would also rely on the ‘Sky Highway’ where possible, which would be in the latter part of the trip when driving conditions were at their worst.

The last part of information and permission was to contact Jo and Robbie Bloomfield who owned Andado Station, the largest privately owned cattle station in the Southern hemisphere, to get permission to travel through their station and out to the start of our true cross country travels. With everything falling into place slowly, I was now spending hours on the computer with OziEzplorer and plotted a GPS course through trackless sand dune country from the last know track that was to end at The Twins. I could not get permission to travel through Aboriginal Land to the Colson Track, so with the aid of Ozi yet again plotted our course to a point on the map where two sections of Aboriginal lands intersected to keep all parties happy.

One point that I could not emphasise enough to my small group was vehicle reliability and enough fuel for nearly 400 kilometres of true cross-country driving. Knowing what I thought would be a worst-case scenario for my then 1998 2.8 Diesel Pajero, I had to carry a total of 320 litres of diesel and 120 litres of water, plus food for a month and the usual recovery equipment. Our intended meeting point with Ken from Alice Springs was going to be Mt Dare, so to see how our vehicles would handle the very soft sand; we did a mini normal Simpson Desert crossing coming in via the Warburton Crossing, up the K1 Line until we reached the French Line and then due west to Mt Dare, a drive we had driven countless times over the years with never any problems at all.

As it was early May 2006 and the real Simpson tourist season had not really taken off as yet, many sections of the French Line were blown over with powder soft sand that in some sections, completely covers the track and we just guessed where the track was and hoped for the best, with some of the larger dunes having quite large lips of up to 1 metre high from the strong hot summer winds. For those that are not sure what those so-called lips are, it is when the drifting sands form a new ridge over the track and care must be taken not to drop off them and damage your vehicle. It was while we were on the French line that my first concerns were raised, as there were a couple of times I became bogged in the very soft sand in places that in previous years, the Pajero would just walk over them. On one such dune it was around 3:30pm in the afternoon and try as I did, I could not get over the final lip of a dune. I tried everything and at this point had my tyres down to 10psi. To be fair to the old girl, she was carrying a lot of weight that was never carried on previous Simpson crossings, it was 40° and the warmest part of the day. One thing was in our favour, there was a large flat area at the base of the dune that I was trying to get over, so I called it a day and we set up camp where I reinflated my tyres back up to 14psi, knowing that the dunes would be more stable early next morning. True to form, the cooler conditions next morning saw the Pajero go over the dune with ease and we slowly made our way to Mt Dare.

With everyone’s fuel tanks as full as they could be with diesel we headed to Old Andado and on our arrival there was greeted with a real surprise. One of my goals back in 2005 when doing the Hay River trip was to visit one special Gum Tree on the banks of the Hay River. This was not just any Gum tree, but the tree that Andrew Harper had attached his small plaque to when he walked across Australia with his string of camels following the Tropic of Capricorn back in 1999. With previous emails to Andrew, he was only too happy to give me the GPS Coordinates and was happy that someone had actually followed his venture back then.

Andrew was helping out with the running of Old Andado and carrying out small trips from there out into the Simpson. And it was finally great to meet him in person. Back on the road again, we arrived at the Mac Clarke Reserve. Following Robby’s instructions we headed out towards The Twins. Just like the French Line, many sections of station track were lost to the moving sand, but once back into the gibber country, the tracks were easy to follow. With the last of our station tracks behind us, it was now 100% GPS navigation and the fun began. Stopping for our smoko break, Ken won the award for the first puncture of the trip, and in typical cross-country track, it was a small Mulga sidewall stake, no bigger that a normal lead pencil.

Over the following days, we had logged a Degree Confluence in a remote, well out of the way in the Simpson heading towards the Colson Track. It was like driving in heaven when we drove down the last dune and hit the Colson Track, but this was only to be short lived until we reached my next plotted waypoint that was as close as parallel to Geosurvey Hill, just under 70 kilometres as the crow files from the Colson Track. The moment that we crossed the very first dune after leaving the Colson Track, we all knew it was now the point of no return. The true powder soft virgin dunes made any retreat impossible and in the event that the trip had to be call off for any reason; it would be a slow inter swale drive down to the French Line.

Our second night out after leaving the Colson Track in the remote Simpson and I notice something very special as the sun was going down. A large flock of small birds that I think may have been Zebra Finches. They were very fast flying, circled our camp once, and then disappeared over a sand dune. I know that there was no water in the area, so what it told me was there must be a native well in the very close area. After the trip, I reported my finding to the National Parks in Alice Springs, both over the phone and via emails, but in true Government fashion, never heard any more on the matter.

At this point in the trip, punctures were becoming an everyday event, with every puncture except one being rear sidewall. The main reason for so many punctures was for the fact that 18 months prior to our trip, the northern section of the Simpson that we were now travelling had had massive summer thunderstorm wild fire that burnt out thousands of hectares of land, resulting in sharp burnt off stumps lying just below the soft sand and any tyre that came in contact with it, had no chance of escaping the inevitable. Late on the second day and third night since leaving the Colson Track, way off in the distance was a large desert beacon that brought hope to our cross-country navigation – Geosurvey Hill.

Reaching this remote location brought excitement to the group and as we climbed the small rock clad hill, we were to read in the visitor book that we were the 17th ever group to have successfully arrived the hard way at this truly remote Simpson Desert location, with the first successful visit after Reg Sprigg, being the Range Rover Club on the 3rd July 1993. Campfire tea followed by the nightly routine of puncture mending and over the next two days, the hardest and slowest sand driving we were to encounter, as we made our way north east from Geosurvey Hill to our next Degree Confluence.

We were now down to low first and second and the moguls were so close together, it would often take up to 20 minutes to cross between swales, a distance of no more than a kilometre. There were a number of times that the Pajero would become beached between moguls, with lack of ground clearance being the only cause and a quick snatch from Ken and we were on the move again. From there it was the long slow haul down to the Geographical Centre of the Simpson and while doing so, relied on what Warren Bonython called his “Sky Highways”

Sky Highway was a term used to describe travelling along the top of the dunes when they were clear of vegetation, rather than traveling down a swale that was covered in moguls. It was also while in this area that we could not find any flat area to pitch camp, and so we had to make camp on the top of a small section of flat, clear sand dune. Heading ever south, each day was the in the regards as, leave camp, stop to fix a puncture, on the move again, out with the snatch strap for a quick pull over a mogul or harder soft dune and just keep going. Arriving at the Geographical Centre and directly behind it was a massive, live dune, more than 3 metres on top of a stable dune and no visible way over. Heading south down the swale, we were finally able to find a way over and then headed east hoping to pick up an old shot line. More fun again, being blocked in by a way of live sand, but eventually found a way over. Arriving at the shot line was bliss, and for the first time in countless days, we could select high range and at one point, hit a warp speed of 60 kph. Towards the end of the track, I hoped to pick up the track that Ron had used to take us west back to the Colson Track.

Well the wind was sucked out of our sails, with a wall of live sand more than 15 metres high and totally impossible to get over, when I tried to climb it, sand was well over my ankle only 2 metres from the track. We had now come so close to our end destination and reviewing the maps, hoped that old shot lines to the east would help us get out of the desert another way. Slowly making our way east it was so time to set up camp, so we called it a day and hoped for a better day in the morning. Next morning with Ozi zoomed into 200% we slowly headed down a swale that I hoped would bring us to this so-called shot line. Try as we did, there was no sign of any track, and so out on foot to see if we could see it better at ground level. From past experience, I knew it was better to look towards the eastern horizon for any signs of dune tracks or variation in vegetation. I was sure that I could make out a change, so we had nothing to lose and set off bouncing slowly over the moguls and at the top of the dune and into the distance, were the very old remains of a shot line that nature had not yet reclaimed. Noting our direction of travel in relation to Ozi, we were on track and just used the moving map to head further east. Quite often the track would disappear for kilometres at a time, yet according to Ozi, were driving on a shot line.

The next main change in desert scenery now had us back into Gidgee country, which meant we could at least have a good campfire at the end of the day. Following these ghost tracks also gave us another surprise when we came across our first, very old survey pegs that were placed out here back in 1972 when they were out here looking for possible oil fields. Another great find on the side of an old shot line was very large pit that had been excavated for some reason, and we put it down to machinery servicing out of the elements, and presume that those working out here would have draped tarps over the pit to protect those working in it. How did we know it was used to service machinery, well it sounded good and had nothing to do with the large number of littered grease cartridges on the floor of the large pit, so much for cleaning up the desert as they worked.

Now back into the Gidgee country, the scenery was ever changing and then there was a very large thump from the front of the Pajero. What the hell was that and pressed the brake pedal to stop and the pedal went straight to the floor…this was a real Oh Shite moment. How I did not ruin my front tyre, but there was a large piece of Gidgee wedged between my front shocker and the wheel, smashing the metal brake line. With brake fluid running down the inner guard, I knew this was something that I had not planned for and as I only carried 500 ml of brake fluid, and no high-pressure tubing or very small radiator clamps, I was now well and truly up the proverbial creek. Our plans at this stage were to come out at Kilpatha Aboriginal well, north of the Poeppel Corner Oil Well site, and this was now not going to happen.

Our next safest departure point from the desert would be south out through Thomas Oil Well and what fun it was driving with no brakes and the only way of stopping was engine braking combined with the hand brake. Safely back onto the French Line, it was like driving on bitumen after days of low range first and second and the ever constant pitch from side to side as we slowly bumped our way over the moguls. Fifteen days after entering the Simpson Desert via the Warburton Crossing, we finals drove into Birdsville and set up camp for the next few days, where punctures were fixed, my brake line was fixed and best of all, clean clothes and hot showers.

Over the following years, I have supplied a couple of ExplorOz members with details and track files for the trip and they experienced a very different trip to what we encountered. Unlike 12 years ago when we did the trip, the internet had nothing about Geosurvey Hill and what was involved for such a remote trip. If only there was the content back then, as I know have found out that we passed very close to a special Aboriginal location, but then again the Aboriginal items we found stil have not been recorded by the professional either.

My details for the trip.

I used 176 litres of diesel from Mount Dare to Birdsville (marked every Jerry can with the exact amount of diesel before the start of the trip, so I knew exactly how much fuel I had on board at all times.)

I used 80 litres of water while out in the desert, and this included cooking, washing ourselves with a small tub and sponge every two days and drinking water.

I had 17 punctures, all rear sidewall stakes with the exception of one stake through the very centre of my front driver side tyre, with the size of the stake fatter than my finger that required 5 plugs to stop it from leaking. Towards the end of the trip I was getting concerned about the usage of the plugs and patches that I carried, but thank goodness I still had one complete box left at the end of trip.
Suffered one broken front brake line that I was unable to fix out in the desert and was not able to be repaired until we arrived at Birdsville.

My fuel tank had to be replaced when we got home, as it suffered a couple of very large dents and a very small weep at one of the welds from the constant thumping down on the moguls.

At the start of the trip, I had fitted 6 brand new Cooper ST tyres and at the end of the trip when we arrived back in Clare, 4 so called new tyres with tread still like new but were ruined and had to be replaced from the countless side wall punctures.

We saw some very special country out in the true remote Simpson Desert that few white people have ever get to see.
Some of the larger sand dunes out in the remoter parts of the Simpson make Big Red look like Small Red, they were just massive and totally impossible to drive over, no matter how good and setup your vehicle is.

Travel will be very slow for no other reason than the terrain that you will be travelling, with our worst day of travel being 20 kilometres - and they were full on days.

This trip must only ever be undertaken by experienced desert travellers that can use GPS navigation, as there are no well-formed tracks to follow.
Would not undertake this type of trip with any less than three vehicles and five being the maximum number.

Stephen Langman

January 2018

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