Part 5 - The Simpson Desert Crossing Begins . . .
With over 1000 sand dunes in front of us, we set our sites on Purni Bore for our first night in the Simpson Desert.
The sun rose into a clear sky over Dalhousie Springs this morning, and the campground is a hive of activity as campers pack up and hit the road east into the Simpson Desert or west towards Mt Dare or Oodnadatta.
We’re not in a screaming hurry to get going and after a good soak in the hot springs last night we’re back again this morning.
It’ll be at least 4 days until we get the chance for a shower in Birdsville, around 400km east of us, so we make the most of the opportunity.
With this being our first time crossing the Simpson, the fact that we’re doing it solo and with me being the only adult on board, I’m keen to stack the deck as heavily in our favour as possible and minimise the risk of any serious issues.
We’re crossing west to east deliberately because with the prevailing wind coming from the west, the slope of the dunes on the western side is more gentle than the steeper eastern side.
With over 1000 dunes to cross, this is a significant factor.
We don’t have another vehicle that can snatch us over a dune if we’re struggling to get traction and there isn’t likely to be any trees to winch off.
We’re also fully loaded with close to 400kg of fuel and water on board as well as 4 people and our food and gear so I’m not looking to make it any harder on us than it needs to be.
We’ll be following the French Line to Poeppels Corner which is the most direct and popular track that runs almost west-east. We’ll then turn north for about 17km and connect with the QAA line that runs east until it gets to Big Red, the Simpson Deserts tallest and most eastern dune and the end of the crossing. From there it’s an easy run into Birdsville.
There are a number of tracks that branch off the French Line including the Rig Road on the southern side but I’ll save this for a future trip.
It’s a legal requirement to have a sand flag on your vehicle to avoid head on collisions at the top of dunes. It’s also common sense with the track being a single lane.
The flag itself needs to be fluorescent red-orange or lime-yellow in colour and at least 300mm wide by 290mm high.
It also needs to be mounted to either the front bull bar and at least 3.5 metres off the ground or the front of the roof rack and be at least 2m above the vehicle roof.
Before we left I picked up a modular flag from Bushranger which comes as 3 x 1m poles and a quick connect mounting base. I drilled a hole in the bull bar and fitted the mounting pin before we left Melbourne so that now all I need to do is screw the 3 pole sections together and click it onto the mounting pin - easy!
With the flag pole being 3 metres high and the bull bar more than 50cm off the ground, I’m comfortably above the minimum 3.5 metre height.
So with our flag fitted and our camp packed up we hit the road east towards Purni Bore which is 70km away and our destination for the day.
The Bushranger sand flag with the quick connect mounting pin
I’m not expecting too many challenges today as the dunes gradually build the further east you travel.
The track is dry and easy going but there are signs of recent rain with some damp sections and deep tyre tracks where vehicles have pushed through.
We had plenty of rain while we were in the Flinders Ranges and we’ve seen some ominous clouds as we’ve headed north but so far it looks like our timing is good and we have clear skies ahead.
I’m excited to finally be here in the Simpson Desert - it’s a trip I’ve been wanting to do for years and now the planets have finally lined up. I know that it’s not the challenge it used to be in the days when the Leyland Brothers and other pioneers were crossing without tracks to follow, GPS for navigation or satellite communications for help, but it’s still one of Australia’s iconic 4WD adventures that needs to be experienced.
Recent rain has left the track still submerged
I don’t expect this to be the only time I drive the Simpson Desert, in fact I’m thinking of it more as a reccie trip for future adventures. I have plans to do some bigger motorbike trips in the future and crossing the Simpson on 2 wheels is on that list too. This will be a good opportunity to get sense of how challenging that is likely to be.
As we head steadily east the terrain is a mixture of low dunes, sandy tracks and dry salt lakes which are more sand and dirt than salt. The vegetation is sparse
We pull over occasionally to setup a 'drive past the camera' shot for our film and during one of these stops we’re overtaken by an ex army Unimog which looks perfectly at home in the desert with it’s epic ground clearance and seemingly endless reserves of power.
For the next hour or so I find myself dreaming about one day buying one of these ex army mogs myself and converting it into the ultimate go anywhere overland motorhome . . . one day!
We arrive at Purni Bore at around 2:30pm after an easy 70km first days driving, choose a camp site and Sienna gets busy whipping up some toasted cheese wraps on the tailgate.
Purni Bore is one of only three camping locations permitted in Witjira National Park, Dalhousie Springs and 3 O’Clock Creek being the others. You can also camp at Mt Dare Hotel which is inside Witjira National park but additional fees apply. The facilities at Purni Bore campground are basic with just a long drop toilet and a shower shed and camp fires aren’t permitted, but there is plenty of space to camp and I’m pleased for the opportunity to have an easy day.
The bore was sunk in 1963-64 by the French Petroleum Company in their search for oil then plugged below the water level at 1400 metres and used as a water supply for further exploration work. It ran free until 1988 when its flow was restricted to conserve water. Today the steady flow of water released from the bore has created an oasis for local wildlife and a backup water supply for travellers.
From our camp we can hear the water flowing up through the nearby bore head and down a pipe into the wetlands.
Sienna’s toasted wraps hit the spot and we set up camp and have a lazy couple of hours enjoying the warmth of the day - easily the warmest day of the trip so far even if it is barely 20 degrees celsius.
As the sun dips towards the horizon Sienna and I get the cameras out and film a cooking segment for our film making one of my favourite spaghetti dishes - spicy tuna spaghetti.
It makes a great camping and road trip dinner because it’s simple to prepare and can be made with little or no refrigerated ingredients.
Just a handful of olives, capers, sun dried tomatoes, capsicum and onions cooked for a few minutes in a frying pan, add a can of tuna in chilli oil, a squeeze of lemon juice, some cracked black pepper and parmesan cheese - toss the cooked spaghetti through and you’re done.
Sienna enjoys helping with the cooking but prefers her spaghetti with just tomato sauce and parmesan cheese . . and of course Savanna is a vegetarian so she has hers without the tuna . . . so in the end it’s just Sara and I that get to enjoy the full recipe!
After the sun has set, the temperature is dropping fast and without a campfire we are feeling it.
Rugged up with pretty much every layer we have, we decide to get the playing cards out and I teach the girls the finer points of black jack - not that I’m an expert but I know the rules and have been to the casino on the odd occasion. We use a couple of boxes of matches in lieu of betting chips and one way or another the dealer always seems to come out in front . . . no wonder I never win at the casino!!
During our game we’re visited by a young dingo who we suddenly become aware is standing watching us on the edge of our camp lights only a few metres away. We also have a large native mouse (not sure what type) running around our feet no doubt feeling safer with us than the dingo nearby.
Soon enough the biting cold wins out and we crawl into our swags for the night.
It’s a clear calm night and aside from the steady flow of the nearby bore, it’s very quiet.
Sienna's 'Tailgate Cheese Wraps'
Whipping up a batch of Spicy Tuna Spaghetti
Next morning I’m up with the sun and grab the video camera and go for a walk to see what I can find.
Only about 100m from our camp are the wetlands created from the bore and while most of them are hidden under dense reeds, there is an open section of water which looks pretty spectacular in the early morning light.
I spend about half an hour filming the wetlands and the birdlife from various angles then it’s back to camp to rally the girls from their swags - no easy task without a warm campfire to encourage them.
Purni Bore wetlands - An oasis for local wildlife
A quick check of the cars vitals - oil and water levels, and I let some more air out of the tyres in anticipation of softer sand and taller dunes ahead.
We have to cover some ground today and my goal is for us to reach a point about 140km further along the French Line, before Lake Tamblyn. So we pack up camp and are back on the track by around 9:30am.
Soon enough we start encountering traffic coming from the east and there is plenty of chatter on the UHF channel 10 which is the primary communication channel for travellers.
As expected, the dunes are getting taller and the sand softer but what I haven’t really expected is that the gaps between the dunes are full of moguls that really stop you getting up any decent amount of speed.
Every now and then I’ll see a clear stretch out in front and the temptation is to push the accelerator a little harder but soon enough there are moguls ahead and it’s back on the brake.
Constant moguls make it hard to maintain any speed
Occasionally I hit them a little too hard and the rear left corner tyre is starting to scrape on the guard. Earlier in the year I fitted larger tyres - 285/75R16’s and now with the car fully loaded all that clearance that we normally have in the rear end from the Old Man Emu lifted springs has gone.
On normal terrain this isn’t an issue but now hitting these moguls it’s causing the back end to bottom out.
The moguls tend to be worse on the up track to the peak of a dune, just when you want to get some speed and momentum going to push over the top.
So it’s a fine balance between hitting them fast enough but not so fast that the car is bouncing wildly on the way up.
After an hour and a half of driving I pull over for a break and inspect the left rear tyre and the signs of scrapping are obvious - fine strands of rubber hanging off and a few deep cuts in the tread.
The right side has bottomed out a few times as well but the left is worse.
This is a concern because we have 300km more of this to go and I don’t want to destroy this tyre along the way.
Damage to the rear tyre from scraping on the guard
After a few oranges for morning tea we continue on and I try and keep the speed down to avoid hitting the moguls too hard but there is no stopping the scrapping.
We’re averaging less than 20km/h in distance travelled so at this rate we have no chance of getting to the point I’m aiming for today.
I’m starting to think that 3 nights between Dalhousie and Birdsville is not going to be enough time.
Aside from the scrapping tyre issue, it’s a beautiful day and we’re relishing the remoteness.
Now that we’re fully into the desert it’s like another world - the wildlife and plant life is different from the surrounding outback. No large birds at all, no kangaroos, wallabies or emus. In fact the largest animal we’ve seen is a dingo.
There are flies of course but not too many.
Sienna is surprised to see any plants at all because she was expecting a typical 'sand only' Sahara Desert kind of experience.
We push on and stop for lunch around 2:00 and I use the opportunity to redistribute the weight in the back of the car to try and get some weight away from the rear left corner and hopefully reduce the scrapping.
Our spare wheel hangs on the back left corner which won’t be helping the situation and while I can’t change that, I can move our water containers over to the right side which I do.
I also move Sara to the front passenger seat and Sienna to the rear left seat.
After about 30 minutes break we continue on and there is a noticeable reduction in the tyre scrapping, although the right side is scrapping a little more now!
Overall still better though.
Time to move some of that water to the right side
I’m using fuel from the rear long range tank first so I expect the problem will reduce as the car gets lighter in the rear but for now it’s a case of taking it nice and slow and being diligent to avoid any big moguls at anything but a slow crawl.
By 4:30 we’re a long way from my planned 140 km mark but looking for a camp spot beside the track anyway so we can get setup and collect some firewood before the sun sets around 5:30.
Flat camp spots between the dunes are not hard to find and we pull into one that has the remnants of camp fires and some firewood nearby.
After we’re setup and the firewood pile is stocked we setup the ‘short drop’ as our collapsible toilet seat has come to be known. No trees to put it behind but once it gets dark it will be out of sight anyway.
In an attempt to minimise any further damage to the tyre, I jack the car up with the high-lift jack and get the hammer out to hammer the lip of the guard up so there is no sharp edge to cut the tyre when it scrapes.
About 20 minutes of pounding and I’ve had some success - we’ll find out tomorrow how much difference it makes.
Before we left Melbourne, Sienna bought a box of ‘Bean Boozled Jelly Beans’ so that we can do the Bean Boozled challenge and most likely be the first ever people to do it in the middle of the Simpson Desert!
If you have’t heard of the Bean Boozled Challenge, I’ll explain . .
The box of Bean Boozled Jelly Beans contains 10 different looking jelly beans but there are actually 20 different flavours - half are your normal delicious jelly bean flavours and the other half are something completely disgusting like rotten egg, vomit or stinky socks. To play the game you spin the spinner and whichever jelly bean it lands on you have to eat - so if you land on the orange jelly bean it might be buttered popcorn or it could be rotten egg - the only way to find out is to eat it.
Is it liquorice or skunk spray, coconut or baby wipes?
It’s a lot of fun and I can tell you the bad flavours are truly disgusting but hopefully not toxic.
Sienna got a bad one one in the Bean Boozled Jelly Bean Challenge
For what it’s worth I managed to film the entire experience but won’t subject viewers of our film to watching it but will instead include it as a ‘deleted scene’ on the DVD and online version for those with a morbid curiosity who want to see us suffer 😃
To get rid of the horrible jelly bean taste we break out the marshmallows and retreat to the warmth of the fire and before calling it a night we wrap up some potatoes in foil and bury them in the coals and go to sleep dreaming of warm mashed potatoes with melted butter for breakfast.
Marshmallows by the campfire to get rid of the Bean Boozled Jelly Bean flavour!