Part 7 - Birdsville or Bust!
We're falling behind schedule and have 180km to cover today to get to Birdsville.
It’s our third & final morning in the Simpson Desert and I’m wishing I’d built in an extra day or even two.
On paper, 4 days / 3 nights seemed like plenty of time to cover the 430km distance between Dalhousie Springs in the west and Birdsville in the east.
But unlike most tracks which tend to have a good mix of fast and slow sections, the French Line is all slow going moguls and sand dunes.
Even when you do encounter the occasional stretch of smoothness, there is no real opportunity to get any speed up as you soon find yourself hitting the brakes as the roller coaster returns.
The end result is that we’ve averaged around 15 km/h and now find ourselves with 180 km left to get to Birdsville - or about 12 hours driving based on our average speed so far.
I could take the pressure off and stay another night but that would only disrupt the rest of the trip and we’d lose out somewhere else.
Jen is also expecting to hear from us today so If we do stay another night she will be worried.
So as the night sky starts to show the first signs of the sun approaching the horizon I crawl out of my warm swag and fire up the video camera to film a time lapse of the sunrise, then throw some wood on the remains of last nights fire and put the billy on for a hot cup of tea.
The sunrise turns out to be the best of the trip so far as the sun lights up a thin layer of low lying cloud and I let the camera run for about 30 minutes to take it all in.
A frame from the sunrise time lapse video I shot
The girls would rather sleep in but I manage to entice them out of their swags and after a quick breakfast and pack up we’re back on the track around 8:30 am.
The first couple of hours are a mixture of moguls, salt pans and some of the tallest dunes of the trip so far.
There’s a couple of dunes that need a second attempt to get over and we encounter the first dune that looks like stopping us in our tracks altogether.
After three failed attempts to get over the top, trying all three of the available tracks, it’s time to get serious.
I let the tyres down further to 16psi, engage the rear Air Locker and line up for attempt number 4.
Feeling confident I drop it into low range second gear and head straight for the main track over the top.
The tyres bite in and the engine revs hard and we reach the crest of the dune with power in reserve.
It’s amazing just how much difference tyre pressures and lockers can make.
Pick a track - left, middle or right - we tried all three before letting more air out of the tyres and making it over the right one.
We’re encountering more westbound traffic today than previous days and channel 10 on the UHF is running hot with one party after another talking amongst themselves and warning oncoming vehicles that they are cresting dunes.
Sara and I share the job of communicating our movements with other vehicles and the system is effective in keeping everyone moving in both directions along the single track.
The Big Red Bash music festival finished the day before yesterday at Big Red which explains the increase in westbound traffic today.
By late morning we have Poeppels Corner in our sites and we squeeze past one more oncoming 4WD before hitting the edge of the Lake Poeppel salt pan and drive across to Poeppels Corner in the dunes on the opposite side.
Poeppel’s Corner is the junction of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland borders and it’s marked by a concrete post and brass plaque on top.
It’s a popular destination with many travellers coming out from Birdsville and we wait in line for a while to get some video and a photo or two of the girls each standing in a different state.
According to the info on the HEMA Desert Tracks ‘Simpson Desert’ map, Poeppel put the original corner marker in the middle of Lake Poeppel in 1880 when he originaly surveyed the borders, but it was later moved to its current position on the edge of the lake by Lawrence Wells after it was determined that the chain used by Poeppel had lengthened, resulting in the corner post being 300 m too far west.
3 daughters in 3 states at Poeppel's Corner
The original corner post at Poeppel's Corner
Nearby to the current concrete marker post is an original wooden one carved from the trunk of a tree which I assume is Poeppels original post (but I’m not 100% sure).
As much as we’d like to hang around, we have a deadline so we get back on the track which turns 90 degrees to the north north west and runs parallel to the sand dunes for 18km to the junction of the QAA line.
This 18km section of the track is easier going and while it still has its fair share of moguls, there are also long stretches running along Lake Poeppel and in some sections we hit a blistering top speed of over 60 kmph - woohoo!
It’s short lived though.
Turning east again onto the QAA line just after 1:00pm, we have 148km to go to reach Birdsville and the dunes are back.
A short 5km later and after crossing another dry salt lake we reach the Northern Territory / Queensland border and cross into Munga-Thirri National Park.
As we steadily knock off the kilometres along the QAA line there are plenty of good campsites along both sides of the track and many have groups of 4WD’s who I assume have been to the Big Red Bash and are now taking some time out to camp in the desert.
Once again I’m wishing we had that extra day so we could make a nice camp and spend a relaxing afternoon enjoying the solitude . . . next time!!
The dunes get steadily higher and further apart as we travel east but the QAA Line is noticeably easier than the French Line and there are longer sections of flater track so our overall average speed is improving.
We stop a couple of times through the afternoon for 10 or 15 minutes to stretch the legs, get the short drop off the roof and grab some snacks from the back, but the pressure is on to keep moving.
As the sun sinks low in the sky and the ‘magic hour’ before sunset approaches when the light is perfect, I pull over and setup the video camera with Sara for a big wide angle shot with the car driving through.
Sara mans the camera while I drive back a few hundred metres, turn around and drive back past the camera and up and over the dune a kilometre or so ahead.
The light is perfect and it turns out to be a great shot with the dunes lit up with that orange sunset glow.
Entering Munga-Thirri National Park as we cross the border from the Northern Territory into Queensland on the QAA Line
Night falls on the Simpson Desert and we still have a long way to go
Turning back to pick up Sara and we swing the camera around and get a great shot of the sunset as well.
As darkness approaches our options for filming will get more limited so I’m happy to have these and a few other great shots in the can.
There are no kangaroos or emus in the Simpson so driving at dusk and night is no real issue and we push on into the darkness passing more and more groups of campers settled in for the night beside the track.
As we reach the crest of a larger dune my phone which is in its cradle on the windscreen, suddenly starts beeping and carrying on and I realise we’ve reached the outer limits of the phone range from Birdsville and all my messages and notifications are coming through.
Taking advantage of the opportunity I fire off a text message to Jen to let her know we’re ok and expecting to get to Birdsville but not to worry if she doesn’t hear from us till tomorrow.
I wait for the confirmation from the phone that the message has been delivered and we push on.
At this point from my point of view the pressure is off and I’d be happy to pull up anywhere and get a fire going, have some dinner and roll out the swags - then continue on in the morning.
When I run it by the girls however, they have other ideas!
They have their heart set on a hot shower in Birdsville and getting back into solid phone range so they can reconnect with the world after 5 days in the the cyber wilderness.
I’m not surprised and not worried either. I’m quite enjoying the night driving and happy to keep going.
It’s around 8:00pm and Big Red is looking to be close now on the Hema Explorer app on my iPhone.
Suddenly out of the gloom in front of us a road sign appears and as we get closer I can see it has the word 'Birdsville' hand painted on it with an arrow pointing to the right and below that is another arrow pointing to ‘Big Red’ straight ahead.
Big Red or Birdsville?
Big Red straight ahead - not quite as impressive at night!
Looking closer at the map I can see that we’ve reached the junction at the base of Big Red which is now right in front of us in the darkness.
Climbing Big Red is a ‘must do’ for us to be able to say we’ve crossed the Simpson Desert but there seems little point trying to do it in the dark.
So instead we resolve to take the chicken track to Birdsville tonight and make camp, then come back tomorrow and finish the job in the daylight.
The girls are all very happy with the plan and we continue on and drive the last stretch on what seems like a freeway by comparison to the last 5 days, arriving into Birdsville a little before 9:00pm.
It’s been a long day . . . but we’ve made it.
The office at the caravan park is closed so we drive in and find a flat piece of rocky ground in the camping area to roll out our swags and in no time at all we’ve crawled into our swags and fall sound asleep (or in reality we lie awake an hour first catching up on emails, social media stuff etc.)