True remote Simpson Desert Travel - Simpson Geo Expedition ‘06

Saturday, Feb 05, 2011 at 18:05

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Having been bitten by the Simpson Desert bug many years previous, the time had now come to look for a new challenge and to test my skills in true remote outback travel. Over the previous years of travelling the Simpson Desert, we had travelled every possible track that the Simpson Desert has to offer, including the previous year travelling the newly opened Hay River Track. The success of any trip comes down to the planning and preparation and the planning for this trip was in the planning stages for two years. This trip would prove the hardest trip to get any information about, as I was constantly hitting brick walls when trying to find out what we could expect to encounter in the remotest parts of the Simpson Desert. The greatest single challenge was for the very fact that we would have no tracks to follow for well over 400 kilometres, travelling over pure virgin desert terrain and would have to rely purely on my GPS plotted course from one side of the Desert, through the Centre and out to the other side. I knew that there was the chance of locating old seismic shot lines that had not been used in decades, but would they still be there or would Mother Nature have claimed them back?

With all the contacts that I had, I could only get reliable information from only two people, and only one of these men had actually been to some of the places that I hoped to travel to only 12 months previously, so would their tracks still be visible. What I did know was that 18 months before our planned trip, there were massive wildfires caused by lightning strikes through the upper sections of the Simpson Desert and much of the desert flora had been destroyed. The biggest problem with this was going to by the countless punctures caused by those small stakes that would lie just beneath the sand waiting to puncture any tyre that happened to come in contact with them. Of all the books on the Simpson Desert that have been written, I have purchased them all and only two would be of any help to me in planning and preparing for this true remote Desert trip.

The first book that inspired this trip was the book written by Griselda Sprigg, ‘Dune is a four letter Word’. Reg Sprigg and his family were the first people to ever travel the Simpson Desert by motor vehicle, both from west to east and south to north. Reg was out there for one reason only, in the hope of locating possible sites that would yield oil for his company, Geosurveys Australia. Reading of the experiences that they faced made it clear that the desert would not have changed and would still pose the very same problems for me. The second book was the book written by Warren Bonython ‘Walking the Simpson Desert’. One term that was mentioned in this book 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 there worst.

Keeping a very close observation on desert condition for months prior to our departure, I was aware that the Simpson Desert had been through very high daytime summer temperatures, strong winds to create ‘Live’ dunes and no rain for around eight months. To get into the feel of these very dry conditions, we left the Birdsville Track and headed straight for Poeppel Corner via the Warburton Crossing. We were near the top section of the Yelpawaralina Track when we encountered a couple of four wheel drive vehicles. Stopping for a quick chat as you do, they informed us that they had spent countless hours digging their vehicles from countless powder fine sand bogs on the Rig Road and they had enough of the desert and we taking the quickest and easiest way out of the Simpson. Hearing stories like this for the Rig Road had us all talking now, and what might just lie ahead of us when we were to enter the true remote desert in a few days time. Travel conditions up the K1 Line had been perfect and on reaching the junction of the French Line, it was time for us all to drop our tyre pressure as we were to meet head on the very soft dunes as we headed west along the French Line towards Dalhousie Springs.

As we were travelling very early in the tourist season, the French Line had seen very few desert travellers and in many places the track had blown over completely, with many sharp lips at the tops of the dunes. Our second day on the French Line and I had my first trouble with the very soft dunes. It was 3.30pm in the afternoon and as we headed up the eastern face on one of the steeper dunes that the French Line has, try as I did, there was no way that I could crest this dune, even with 14 psi in the tyres. If this had been a normal Simpson Crossing, this dune would not have proven a problem, but with 300 litres of diesel, 120 litres of water, food for a month and all the usual equipment that you take on any desert trip, the weight and lack of power for my most faithful Pajero was the only reason that we could not get over. The base of this dune was to be our camp for the night, as from many previous desert crossings, experience had shown us that late in the day when the dunes had warmed up, the sand is dryer and that same dune can be no problem early in the day with cooler conditions. After setting up camp, I took a walk to the top of this big dune to check conditions on the other side. It was just as well as I did, because at the top of this dune there was a very large blow away and any vehicle that hit this at the wrong angle would have sent that vehicle on its side. Next morning this dune proved no problem to us and we were to spend another day in very soft sand on the French Line before arriving at Mount Dare, where we had arranged to meet Ken Williamson from Alice Springs who was to be a member of my small group.

Next morning with full tanks of diesel and water and our last showers for 13 days, we headed for Old Andado. Along the way, I met Jo and Robbie Bloomfield who own Andado Station, the largest privately owned cattle station in the Southern hemisphere, who had given me prior permission to travel through their station and out to the start of our true cross country travels. When we arrived at Old Andado Station, I was able to catch up with Andrew Harper, who I had made a number of contacts with prior to my Hay River Trip in 2005. In 1999, Andrew with a small group of camels walked solo the full length of the Tropic of Capricorn. One of the number of plaques that Andrew had attached to trees along the way was on one single gum near the bed of the Hay River, and with Andrew's help, I was able to locate this tree and to become the very first person to find and see this plaque in the 6 years since it was nailed to the eucalypt trunk. Departing Old Andado, we arrived at the Mac Clark Reserve to resign the Visitors Book and were surprised that there were few visitors’ names added to the book since our last visit here, showing that as close to Andado as it was, it was still remote enough to keep many people away. Once past East Bore, all evidence of the station tracks had been covered in sand and it was now down to GPS navigation. Every now and them we would find the occasional track and once clear of the dune country and back into gibber country, we were once again back onto station tracks. Passing Madigan’s Camps 1 and 2, we made camp that night close to The Twins and knowing that the next day would herald the start of our true cross country travels.

No visit to this area would be complete without adding our names to the visitor’s book located inside the small rock cairn at the top of The Twins. Back on track again, our vehicles were given a true outback christening with no way around much of the small vegetation, so there was the constant scraping sound on the side of our vehicles. Stopping for our smoko break and Ken received the token for being the first vehicle to suffer a side wall puncture, the first of many to be encountered by my group over the entire length of the trip. Once clear of the denser vegetation and past the Hale River floodplains, the dunes were no real problem. The key to this type of cross country travel was to constantly scan the approaching dunes and selecting the lowest point on that dune with the least vegetation and no live sand to make the crossing point. Over the next day and a half we soon got into a good routine for crossing the soft dunes and we finally broke through to the Colson Track, two and a half days after leaving Mount Dare.

Another important part of this cross country driving was the use of OziExplorer, which gave us real time moving navigation as we were slowly crossing the desert. What we did not know at this time, was that we were to rely heavily on OziExplorer in the coming week to help us pick our way around some of the very large live dunes in the Central Simpson that were impossible to drive over. The areas were conditions were severe were the parts of the desert that had been burst out, with no vegetation to stabilise the dunes, with some dunes having more than 2 metres of live sand on top of the already stable dunes. In situations like this, I would consult OziExplorer and look for breaks in the dunes, which would then make it possible to travel further east.

Distance of travel out hear was measured in time and not distance, purely for the fact that the pace of travel was very slow, with low range first and second the selected gearing and with good sections getting into third low. From now on, the needles of our Speedos sat on 0 and the only way of knowing how slow we were travelling was to see the speed on our GPS and was quite comical, as there were times when we were passed by a small moths, which showed us just how slow we were travelling. Most days we would average around 33 kilometres of travel, with our slowest day only covering 22 kilometres and our best day of travel, south down from the Geographical Centre, with a massive 61 kilometres travelled.

Heading south down the Colson Track was a real luxury, which was very short lived and we were able to select four wheel drive high range, even if only for 10 kilometres. At my next pre plotted waypoint, it was again time to scour the eastern dunes for an inviting approach before heading further east to our next goal, Geosurvey Hill. After only crossing just two dunes, the dunes were now becoming increasingly higher and rougher to cross and the thought of making a forced retreat back to the Colson Track would be impossible, as the eastern faces of the dune very steep and rough and it would have been impossible to try and get back over the huge virgin dunes. The soft sand was hard work for me being the lead vehicle, but the back vehicles were having just as hard a time, as once the dunes had been crossed by only two vehicles, the back vehicles had to find another place to cross, as the sand was so soft. All snatch straps now had been well and truly christened and there were now very few dunes that could be crossed without the help of a snatch. We had only covered around 3 kilometres since leaving the Colson Track and conditions were not looking favourable for finding a flat cleared area to camp. Once again luck was on our side and around 4pm after cresting another dune, we dropped down into a swale which had a very small flat, level and cleared area in the middle of it. We could not believe our luck and we set up camp immediately. That night was the fitst night for the trip with some cloud cover, so the setting sun setting the sky on fire with brilliant yellows, oranges and red tinges.

My usual routine now after setting up camp would be to walk to the top of the next dune and look for our best possible crossing point. The next morning was typical of most morning during this trip, get the fire going again, having breakfast and not looking forward to what the day would bring. Snatching and tyre changing were now the general order of the day, with our best record of two days in a row where no one needed either a snatch over a dune or a single puncture was encountered. My next plotted waypoint was Geosurveys Base A. The only person that was able to help me with the preparation of this trip had emailed me pictures of this location, but said that he did not have a waypoint for it. When he gave me a plot file to Geosurveys Hill, it was very easy to read the file and I was fairly confident of where to find this Base, based on what I had been told and Ozi data that I knew how to read. Before reaching Geosurveys Base A, we had come across 2 very small old fuel drops. Nearing the waypoint and cresting a dune, we could see down the swale and less than 200 metres from where I plotted the base was the actual location, again showing just how reliable good mapping skills are in remote locations like this. Geosurveys Base A was a forward scouting camp where teams of men set off in all directions into the Simpson Desert in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in the hope of finding possible locations where they hoped to locate and drill for oil out in the Desert.

Our next waypoint was Geosurveys Hill, still over 40 kilometres away, so we again set off at a walking pace over the dunes. At the end of the next day, we crossed yet another large dune and like a beacon in the desert, Geosurvey Hill could be seen in the distance, still well over two kilometres away. Fifteen minutes latter we arrived at a large flat area that we would make camp, so we all quickly set up our camps them grabbed torches, cameras and our plaque and headed off to catch the setting sun from this large Simpson Desert Hill. The views from the top of the hill were unreal and it was great to have a 360° panoramic view of the desert, with the setting sun as our backdrop. The very first group of four wheel drive enthusiasts to visit this remote location in the Simpson after it was first discovered and named by the late Reg Spring on the 4th September 1964 was the Range Rover Club on the 3rd July 1993. Since that date we were to become the 17th group to successfully visit this truly remote location. It was a very joyful occasion to know that we had safely crossed the desert and the reliable modern day GPS form of navigation had us at the precise location.

Next morning within 10 minutes of leaving camp we struck more trouble in the form of very constant live dunes and increasingly bigger moguls. Our pace of travel was now very slow and that day was our slowest day of travel, only covering 22 kilometres. As remote as we were in the desert, very time that we stopped on the very small Claypans, there were constant reminders of the original inhabitants of this area in the form of many stone chippings and grinding stones. The further northeast that we headed, the deeper the moguls became. That night the only very small flat piece of ground that we could find to camp was on the top of a dune.

We arrived at the Confluence that I was aiming for, still 8 kilometres away by smokeo the next morning. From here down to my next waypoint, the Geographical Centre of the Simpson was to become the slowest as the moguls were getting quite severe to the point that we would now use the ‘Sky Highways’ that Warren Bonython described. Sky Highways are actually the top smooth surface of the dunes and this gave great relief from the constant pitching that we were now all suffering. The dunes in this part of the Simpson can only be described as gigantic with no way possible of crossing them, so Ozi was put into overtime as we recalculated our cause so we could drive between the dunes where one Dune would finish and another new Dune start. Every now and then out of nowhere would appear the remains of an old exploration camp and a few hundred metres of old seismic shot line, and then as quick as we came upon them, they would disappear right in front of your eyes. Another day and a half later, the large tower that marks the Geographical Centre came into view and the final few kilometres to the tower up the side of a swale were the smoothest driving conditions that we would encounter for the whole cross country trip.

The number of names that had been recorded in the visitor’s book, which is located in an old metal jerry can, showed that this remote location was now being visited by more people than you think. Nearly all visitors had come in from a shot line off of the Colson Track and are able to follow well defined and reasonable shot lines. At least you are able to use high range on those shot lines which makes the biggest difference to driving conditions. We were all still on our big highs, having now successfully travelled purely by GPS navigation and reached another of the Simpson's remote places to visit. It was soon time to head yet further east, but this time we had to head a short distance south down the swale before being able to find a suitable place to cross the now very live dunes in this area. Having crossed only 2 dunes we now were halted by a new live dune, over two metres high. These live dunes had powder fine sand and even walking up them; you would sink down into ankle depth sand, so the weight of our vehicles had no chance of crossing and would bog down before the back wheels had even reached the soft sand. We all set off, some heading south while the others headed north up the little valley between the dunes to find a suitable crossing point and within twenty minutes we had found a point, further south of our crossing and well all heading to the shot line that heads south. As old as this shot line was, we all enjoyed the opportunity to select high range and to be able to reach subsonic speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour, compared to our pace of travel during the last week. This short lived shot line soon terminated and it was time to select low range and point our vehicles east again to set of for some an old seismic line that should have been further to our east out in the desert.

Early next morning, we had arrived in the correct swale that I was aiming to be in, in the hope of now locating this next shot line. Low range first and we were rocking our way south down the swale, with our sharpest eyes scanning the eastern dune looing for any sign of this shot line. Up until this point the topo maps had been spot on, but try as we did, there were no signs of any old shot line. At this stage we were over 200 metres further south than we should have been, so I turned our vehicle around and retraced our tracks to a point where the shot line should be. Stopping our vehicles, it was now down to foot resonances and then my eyes could barely see the signs of a very old and almost completely revegetated shot line. This then was the reason why it was so hard to locate this shot line and that I had to be positioned directly in front of it to see the very few trace of line, and so by moving as little one metre in either direction and all visible signs of this track had disappeared completely. I was now hoping that the track would become more defined and within the crossing of the next 2 dunes, that is what exactly happened; the shot line became more defined. My next special find along this very old shot line were the many wooden survey posts that would have aided the drivers who would have put this line in. A short distance later and I was advised the by the vehicle travelling behind me that I had just driven over some wire. I told Ken he must be mad, as how would any wire get out hear and then I had to eat humble pie. Within another 200 metres and I could not believe what I had just come across. Still in the same position that it was put more than 30 years previous, was the first of countless high tensile wire markers that are first put in by surveyors and with coloured ribbon attached. These wire markers were placed around every 200 metres and when they were first placed there, the plant operator would simply follow these ribbon markers and thus create a new seismic shot line. In many placed the old shot line would disappear completely, so now it was a two person job to keep on track. It would only take a few seconds to concentrating on driving conditions and the shot line would be lost completely. To overcome this issue, Fiona would have her eyes fixed on the shot line to a point where it would disappear in the distance, while my job would be to pick the best possible path. In this manner while I was going from left to right, picking the best path, Fiona would simply tell me to head then either left or right until I was again able to concentrate on the horizon and to see the old shot line.

Our next great sight was to re enter Gidgee country again, which would always guarantee great camping locations. The tracks in this part of the desert were much easier to follow and we found the first ever twin shot lines running parallel through a patch of Gidgee. It was then time to head south down another series of old shot lines and like the other sections we had been through, the line south had by taken back by nature. A quick search on foot soon had us back on track and this time we were in country very similar to that of the Knolls Track, with the shot line graded through gypsum terrain.

We also came across a very large open pit, with a number of empty grease cartridges lying scattered around, so we could only come up with the put was dug to carry out service work on machinery. Over the following three more days we zig zaged our way towards Poeppel Corner. When we finally broke through to the normal travelled tracks of the Simpson, it was like drive on a bitumen road compared to the last 14 days of low range first and second and crossing the bare dunes of the Simpson, just like the very first vehicles did all those years ago. It now seemed like a real anticlimax being back on familiar track of the QAA Line, as we simply glided over every dune in our way with not even a second run at even the larger dunes as we headed further east. We now had strong hot winds again and when we finally reached Big Red, there was not one single vehicles track from the west over to the top of the last dune in the Simpson. It was a strange feeling to get to the top of Big Red and not see one track at all on top of the dune. One other unusual strange site on top was a large pile of rocks that appeared to have been left there by a small tipper. On arrival at the Caravan Park, we were greeted by the best operators of the Park ever, who I had got to know quite well from my other previous Simpson trips. Ruth was her usual bubbly personality and was anxious to hear of our adventure. Those hot showers in Birdsville had never felt so good and while we were in the park, we bumped into another great Simpson Desert adventurer who we had first met over 12 years previously out in the Simpson, Denis Bartell. Denis was part of the back up crew for the first ever group of women to walk across the Simpson, raising money for Breast Cancer Research, which included his daughter who had travelled out from Canada to participate in the charity walk. The next two days we spent having cups of coffee with Ruth, showing her the photos that we had taken and generally taking it easy before heading down the Birdsville Track and home.

For anyone ever thinking of undertaking a similar type of true remote Simpson Desert trip, my only advise is to take preparation and your own ability very serious, as any serious troubles out there will be life threatening and any chance of vehicle recovery impossible.
Smile like a Crocodile
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