It started as a thought bubble, why don’t we drive across the Simpson Desert?
According to the frequently erroneous Wikipedia, the Simpson is the world’s largest sand dune desert, with the world’s longest dunes. It covers 176,500 km2 (68,100 sq mi) and the dunes range in height from 3 metres in the west to around 30 metres on the eastern side.
There are no made roads and no fuel stations. The tracks are well-defined, even sign-posted in places, but you must take them just as you find them. The prevailing wind is from the west. This has a profound effect on dune morphology, the west face of the dunes has a slope of 10-20° whilst the eastern face has a slope of 34-38°. West to east seems a good idea for a beginner.
There are a number of routes to choose from. Of the two most popular, the French Line is reputed to be harder than the Rig Road. So the Rig Road seems another good idea for a beginner. We chose the French Line.
Last fuel on the west can be either Oodnadatta or Mount Dare Station the next, on the east, is at Birdsville (taking the QAA Line from the end of the French Line) or Mungerannie (taking the Warburton Track). Mount Dare would have been a little out of our path but shortens the distance a little. The longest of the possibilities is Oodnadatta to Mungerannie at about 750 km.
A solo trip seems foolhardy for a beginner so I invited some friends along. Two high clearance 4WD vehicles were set up for the gig, an FJ Cruiser (petrol) and a Landcruiser series 70 ute (diesel). Both have electric winches, radio and a shovel – the first self rescue item to turn to in sand. There was one satellite phone. And of course, the sand flags. We would carry some extra fuel.
We would be travelling in the tracks of countless aborigines and many other Europeans including Mrs Middleton’s little boy, Johnny; and Bill from Cunnamulla who did it twice on his bike. The first white explorer to see the Simpson was Charles Sturt back in the 1840’s. It was in the way of his attempt to travel north to the geographic centre of Australia. He was unimpressed …
We had penetrated to a point at which water and feed had both failed … The spinifex was close and matted, and the horses were obliged to lift their feet straight up to avoid its sharp points. From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right, we saw that the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and the westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour …
In 1880, Augustus Poeppel, a surveyor with the South Australian Survey Department made an incursion from the east along the 26th parallel, the Queensland/South Australia border, and marked the point where they meet the Northern Territory. He placed the tristate junction a little too far west, in the middle of what is now Lake Poeppel. It has since been moved to its correct position and is called Poeppel’s Corner.
Development on each side of the desert occurred quite early. Edward Meade Bagot took up the lease on Dalhousie Station on the western fringe in 1873. Birdsville, on the eatern fringe, dates from about 1881 initially as Diamantina Crossing but quickly renamed. The Birdsville Post Office opened in January 1883.
David Lindsay, a formidable explorer, joined the dots. In January 1886, the height of summer, he set out from Dalhousie on the west side of the desert with Paddy – a Wangkangurru Aboriginal man and Charles Bagot, the pastoral lessee of Dalhousie Station and headed east into the Simpson Desert. He visited and documented a series of nine Aboriginal wells and travelled to the Queensland/Northern Territory border. Considering the country further eastwards to be “discovered” and also considering Mr. Bagot’s health, he backtracked to Dalhousie.
In 1886 Warburton, properly Peter Egerton-Warburton (1813-1889) penetrated from the south. He explored the area around the north shore of Lake Eyre searching unsuccessfully for Cooper Creek but found a large river which was subsequently named the Warburton River. He traced this north to the Queensland border. We hoped to follow his track south from Poeppel’s Corner but his river just happened to be in flood.
The name Simpson Desert was coined by Cecil Madigan, in honour of Alfred Allen Simpson, an Australian industrialist, philanthropist, geographer, and president of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. Mr Simpson was the owner of the Simpson washing machine company. Madigan made an aerial reconnaissance flight over the desert in 1929, which proved that the desert was composed of numerous parallel sand dunes, with no evidence of permanent water.
Ten years later Madigan crossed the desert by camel and celebrated being the first across the entire desert in the very readable Crossing the Dead Heart.
He was not, of course, the first, in fact not even the first European. That honour goes to Ted Colson who had traversed the full width of the desert in both directions three years earlier.
On 27 May 1936 after a season of good rains, Colson set off from Mount Etingamba 53 miles north of Bloods Creek with a lone aboriginal companion Eringa Peter. He carried provisions for two months, a compass and maps and travelled due east following the 26th parallel. Facing approximately 140 miles of unknown country, they subsequently traversed over a thousand sand ridges. He named some hills near the western side after his wife Alice, and a dry salt feature Lake Tamblyn after John Tamblyn his school master. His course took him to Poeppel’s Corner then on to Birdsville which they reached on 11 June, and set out for the return journey three days later. He had missed the corner post on the outward trip (by only 300 yards), but found it on the return journey and took photographs as it was still in good condition a little over 50 years after its placement. They arrived back at Bloods Creek on 29 June 1936, after 36 days and almost 600 miles of travel.
The first crossing by car was by Reg Spriggs with the wife and kids in September 1962. They took 12 days to travel from Andado Station to Birdsville in a short wheelbase Nissan Patrol. The following year French Petroleum commissioned a seismic survey which involved bulldozing a route a little to the south of the Spriggs’ – the French Line.
So, the plan …
You can click on the map to enlarge it.