The Simpson Desert 1 (getting there)

 

First across the Simpson Desert in Australia.

To be one of the first to cross the Simpson Desert when it opens after the rainy summer season is quite a special experience.

The desert is still pristine. No tyre or foot tracks. Just you and the desert as it might have looked thousands or millions of years ago.

Simpson Entrance

 

The desert is closed for all vehicles between 1 December and 15 March every year, because of the rainy season. Although the Simpson is a desert it does get rain. Previously some of the heaviest rain in many years occurred during 2009-2010, and has turned the Simpson Desert into a garden of flowers and colour. It was so flooded that is was almost impossible for any vehicles to travel through the desert for a few months.

The  Simpson desert is the 4th largest desert in Australia. Its 176,500 square meters make it the world’s largest sand dune desert. Under the desert is  the Great Artesian Basin.  There are numerous natural hot water springs around the desert. It is also part of the huge salt Lake Eyre basin.

Australian Deserts

 

The Simpson Desert is an erg, the same as on MarsVenus and Titan. If you don’t know what that is, ask Wikipedia! The Simpson also contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes. These north-south oriented dunes are static, due to vegetation and vary in height from 3 meters to 30 meters. The largest and most famous dune is Big Red or Nappanerica, which is 40 meters high.

So we were bursting with excitement and anticipating the unknown desert where we will be for 2 weeks with no fuel, water or any ablution facilities available. You have to take everything there and back with you. Including 180 litres of fuel and 40 litres of water per person. This is a special 4×4 camping trip that we have been looking forward to for a long time. We decided to do it on an organized “tag a long” tour by Great Divide Tours under the very competent leadership of Vic Widman, the owner. Vic proved to be an excellent manager and tour leader, assisted by Wayne and Jenny. He also carries a satellite phone with him. They even provide a breakdown mechanical service.

The Great Divide Team. Vic, Jenny, Wayne.

 

So, off we go!

 

March 10

At 8 am we left the Chinese Phoenix Motel in the town of  Maree, on our way to Wilmington. It is a long, lonely road. The plant life is bushy along most of the road interspersed with very large cotton fields, all under irrigation. All the towns along the way are very small and many are not more than a fuel pump and a shop. The only people around seem to be the odd Aboriginal customer strolling around.  Late afternoon we reached the very nice camp site, on the riverbank at Wilmington. Now was our chance to unfold, erect and light up all our camping equipment and lights while we are still in “civilization” Everything works and we are in business! Inside the tent it is extremely hot, but, with the help of a light breeze later on, we slept like logs.

Wilmington camp site

 

 

March 11

After breakfast and a great shower with strong warm water, at 9am we are on the road again.   Steve, who runs the camp site came to collect our key to the ablution block at 8 am. He is a very entertaining guy, with many stories about everything and everyone in the district. It turns out to be “Adelaide Cup Day” and everyone  in Port Augusta is watching the horses. We checked in at the Big4 camp site, which was taken over by Aspen Parks. in town. It is here that we are going to meet up with the rest of our group. We checked into a cabin, which was a bit of a disappointment, not up to the normal Big4 standard.

Big 4, Port Augusta

 

We met the rest of the group over a very good, reasonably priced, dinner at Ian’s Western Hotel.

We will be 10 people plus the 3 Great Divide Staff members. 6 vehicles in total. Just a nice size group. From now on we will be travelling in convoy. Very fully laden,….. with fuel, water, spares and oils for anything, maxtrax, 2 spare wheels each, UHF radio, etc. etc. Our last “civilised” sleep went well in the Big4 cabin with the A/C running all night.

 

Tomorrow the adventure begins!

 

 

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Simpson Desert 2 (Port Augusta to William Creek)

12 March, Tuesday.

After stocking up on fresh veggies and food we waved good bye to Port Augusta at 9.30 in the morning.

Last supply store in Port Augusta.

 

We travelled North, all along the western edge of the Flinders Mountain Range and the  old Ghan Railway Line.

Our first stop was for a tea break  in the tiny town of Quorn, home of the Pichi Richi Historic railway.

Prairie Hotel in Parachilna

For lunch we stopped at the Prairie Hotel in Parachilna. This hotel has a very interesting selection of paintings and photographs.

Ochre Quarry

Ochre Quarry

 

After briefly stopping at an ochre quarry we passed through the town of Marree where a film crew was shooting a post-apocalypse film. The barren landscape is well suited for such a film. Apart from saltbush, there isn’t much else growing betrween the rocks and stones. After looking at the Tom Cruise exhibition at the hotel, we left for the Muloorina Station. A short distance out of Marree on the Birdsville Track is the monument and plaque commemorating John McDouall Stuart, who made the first successful crossing of Australia along this route.

John McDouall Stuart monument

 

John McDouall Stuart plaque

 

Shortly before sunset we arrived at the family run Muloorina Station, which is 1,000,000  acres (or 400,000 Hectares) in size. An excellent dinner was prepared for us by the owners. The rooms were quite something different, it was like sleeping in a pre-fab cold storage room. They were excellent, a great idea. Very clean, en- suite bathroom, well isolated against the heat, air conditioned and free from flies. They don’t have to heat any water in this area, it all comes from natural artesian hot water springs. The whole area is part of the great artesian basin.

Muloorina is also where on 17 July 1964, Donald Campbell and his team stayed when he set the land speed record on the dry salt pan of Lake Eyre in his famous Bluebird car.

 

13 March, Wednesday.

Today we are  following the Oodnadatta track along the southern edge of Lake Eyre towards William Creek station.

 

Along the way, in the middle of nothing,  near Alberrie Creek, we pass the incredible Mutonia Sculpture Park with it’s remarkable Plane Henge, moon buggy, weird windmills and ET space figures, created by mechanic turned artist, Robin “Mutoid” Cooke, who returns every year to create a new sculpture.

Mutonia Sculpture Park

Mutonia Sculpture Park

 

Mutonia Sculpture Park

 

 

We also stopped at a spot where Lake Eyre is 15m below sea level.

 

It is the lowest point in Australia and when flooded becomes the 18th largest lake in the world. Along the road are mound springs in places where boiling hot artesian water bubbles through mounds in the ground. Some of them even have names, such as “Blubber” and “Blanche Cup“.

 

Along the road hugging the old disused Ghan railway, between Adelaide and Darwin, are many photogenic ruins of old buildings.

William Creek is where we spend our night.

William Creek Hotel

The town is surrounded by the Anna Creek Station (In AUS they call a cattle farm a station, ….weird people) which is the largest working cattle farm in the world. It is 2,500,000 Hectares in size. William Creek is one of the smallest towns in Australia. They are the only town with more aeroplanes than people. It also has the most remote pub in the world. The Woomera former testing ground for atomic weapons is also nearby. In their Memorial Park is the first stage of the Black Arrow Rocket, from Britain’s only successful independent space launch in 1971, which was recovered from the surrounding Anna Creek Station. Quite a few backpackers working in the outback hotels. Here we had a Canadian girl running the pub in a very efficient way.

 

 

Rising very early the next morning we went on a scenic flight, first over the painted desert and then we flew over the huge Lake Eyre. Our pilot, Talia Sheppard, the chief pilot of Wrightsair was an excellent pilot as well as aerial tour guide. (Probably because she was born in South Africa). The scenery from the air is stunning.

The pilot and the plane

Lake Eyre

Painted desert

 

After the flight we’re back on the Oodnadtta Track, on our way to Mt Dare.

 

 

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Simpson Desert 3 (William Creek to Mt Dare)

 

14 March  Thursday

Leaving William Creek behind, we were again following the Oodnadatta track.

 

 

We made a stop at the Algebuckina railway bridge, over the Neales River, south-east of Oodnadatta. It opened in January 1892 and is the longest bridge in South Australia. It is a Victorian era bridge that was originally built in the UK for the Murray river. But, when it arrived they realized that it was too short and they had to find another river where they could use it.

Algebuckina railway bridge

 

 

From here we were on our way again, following the Oodnadatta track towards Mt Dare. Along the way we made we made a short stop at the Pink Roadhouse.  A well known haven in the outback for travelers.

Pink Roadhouse

The scenery is now changing and it is beginning to look more like a desert. The road is becoming more rough. More large sharp stones, the size of cricket balls. The countryside is very flat with the odd red sand dunes . You don’t want to drive here with old worn tyres. We stopped for a break at the Eringa billabong, which is on a very large river that is completely dry.

 

Shortly before sunset we arrived at the Mt Dare Hotel. A welcome stop after a very bad road, full of large stones. Fortunately none of us had any tyre problems.

 

 

Today was a nice cool day, 25 degrees C. Much better than the 39 degrees of the previous couple of days. This is the most isolated hotel in Australia. The food at their restaurant was excellent. Esmé had chicken and I had a steak.

 

 

Tomorrow we will be entering the real Simpson Desert.

 

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Simpson Desert 4 (Mt Dare to French Line)

15 March Friday

filling up at Mt Dare

 

After filling up our tanks as well as all the extra jerry cans,  we left Mt Dare just after 10.30 am. This is the last refueling spot until we reach Birdsville. Vic, who likes his tea, also had to have a cup first, before we could leave.

 

stones, corrugations and hobbles

The road wasn’t to bad, just a lot of stones, corrugations and hobbles.

 

The Simpson desert doesn’t have a “gate” where permits are checked, only a sign that states that you are now in the desert and that it was closed from 1 December until 15 March.

We made a stop at the Dalhousie ruins, which are really a bit of a disappointment. It’s more like a “not very old” homestead that has fallen in disrepair. The parks board in their “wisdom” decided to remove all but 2 of all the date palms that were growing there and also did some patch work on the ruins to make them look better. It now looks like a fairly recent stone work on a “modern” ruin.

Dalhousie ruins

We are now in the Witjira National Park.

Witjira National Park.

The Simpson Desert is underlain by the Great Artesian Basin,  one of the largest inland drainage areas in the world. Water from the basin rises to the surface at numerous natural springs, including the Dalhousie hot springs, which will be our next stop.

The outside temperature was 45 degrees C.  The Dalhousie hot springs forms part of a group of over 60 natural artesian springs. It’s a great place to take a swim in the middle of a parched desert landscape. The water temperature is about 38 degrees C and very pleasant to swim in. At the hot springs is a modern clean ablution block and it should be quite a pleasant place to camp for a day or two. Under the shade of the ablution block we also talked to a derelict person that was camping there out of the boot of his dilapidated car. He was visiting the springs because the water was good for his skin. Cut a large plastic coke bottle length-wise in two and you have two shoes. All you need are a few ropes to tie it onto your feet. This is what he was wearing……. he claimed that the dingos had stolen his shoes.

Purnie Bore is where we made our camp for our first night in the desert. Purnie Bore was sunk during the oil exploration years. Over the years, leaks in the bore caused a substantial amount of hot water to surface and develop into a sizable lake. Conservationists were worried that the salty water from the water body would change the native habitat. Since then, most of the old bores have been closed off and the overall flow has been reduced to a trickle.

Campsite at Purnie Bore

 

It was a beautiful  cloudless night sky. Many of the star constellations were visible. There were a few dingos sneaking around our camp site, but, they never came close and weren’t aggressive.

Purnie Bore

 

While making dinner, Esmé missed a few heart beats. As she turned around, there a dingo was standing right behind her. But, he took off as quick and quietly as he came. This would also be the last place where we would have a toilet and shower for a few days. There are wild camels roaming around the desert and they took care of most of the night sounds  with their snoring.

 

 

 

 

 

16 March Saturday

We started driving again at 8.30 in the morning, after only waking up at 6.30. Following the French Line, we passed one vehicle on our way to the Erabena Track. Apart from that we were making the first tracks in the desert for the season.

At the Erabena junction we turned towards the WAA line. We followed the WAA line, an east-west seismic line, similar to the French Line, for parts of the day and ended the day back on the French Line.

We made camp for the night in the open near the track. Fortunately there were a few small shrubs around that could provide some ablution privacy when needed. The starry night sky was spectacular, shining glitter everywhere above.

A southern wind, tugging our roof tent, was gusting at about 25 km per hour and that brought the temperature down to about 38 degrees C. It was almost cold at times.

 

 

Tomorrow we will be deeper into the dune world.

 

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Simpson Desert 5 (French line to Poeppel’s Corner)

 

17 March, Sunday

8.30 am and we’re on our way. This morning we were already up at 5.30, making sure we did not oversleep again. We had more than enough time, too much actually, for coffee, a wash and breakfast. Our gas burner is not working so well. I think the pipe is too long and too flexible. Bernard, doing his social rounds,  is very talkative and entertaining this morning.

making everything tight

 

Following the French Line, today we crossed-over some dunes that were higher than those of the previous days.

French Line

 

 

On most of them you had to make a sharp turn on the crest, so as to get your angle right for the descent on the other side. The reason is because of the angle of the prevailing winds. At this point we are the only vehicle so far that has not been stuck in the sand yet.

one of the sharp turns

 

 

 

The flies are unbelievable! They appear out of no where when you step out of the vehicle and within seconds there are at least a hundred sitting all over you. The nets that cover your face are absolutely essential. They even manage crawl in under the nets as well. Wearing the head-nets, takes some getting used to.

flies, flies and more flies

 

I think everyone forgets to remove the net at times, when you try to drink or eat something….  even brushing your teeth. Everyone must have swallowed at least one fly at some stage.

Our overnight campsite today ended up being in a dry salt pan. The wind is still blowing strong from the South. Once again we had a day temperature of in the upper thirties.

Dingo

 

 

18 March, Monday

8.30 am and we’re on our way again. This morning we decided to skip coffee. We surfaced at 6am and even that was still too early, everyone else was still asleep. Our first 25 litre water can is now empty. The surrounding sand dunes look ominous like black walls in the shadows of the rising sun.

We stopped for tea at Poeppel’s corner. Here you can stand in South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, all at the same time.

Poeppel’s corner

 

You could celebrate the New Year three times over here in the same spot on the same day, since all three the states have different time zones.

Poeppel’s corner

Poeppel’s corner

 

 

The sand dunes are now becoming steeper and higher. We are still the only vehicle with a clean slate, of not getting stuck yet. We are now travelling in the Queensland part of the Simpson Desert.

 

It is almost as if the sand is softer and has more of a red shimmer to it since we crossed into Queensland. The surrounding scenery is also beginning to look more like a desert, with more sand and less grass and shrubs to be seen.

 

It’s already late afternoon when we cross from the Simpson Desert into the Adria Downs, a very large pastoral lease, used as a cattle station.

Adria Downs

 

 

Our campsite for the night is in a dry river bed……. that was flooded in 2012. Apparently the width of the river was 13 km at that stage.

sunset

 

We are now in the Queensland time zone, which is 30 minutes different from South Australia. These South Australians are weird, do they really think 30 minutes makes any difference?

 

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