Last minute checks of vehicle, water, fuel and supplies and we were off towards Birdsville. Unclear how many days we would need without knowing the conditions of the various tracks we would be traversing and what speed we would be making. With 1100 sand dunes to cross we knew that an average of 20km/hour was hopeful at best.
Our first stop was at Purnie Bore which was still in Witjira NP and has a campsite (pretty bland) and shower (not essential after two days floating in the hot springs). It has a bore which has been capped but has been reopened just enough to allow the wetland which had established around the bore to be maintained. The birds and other animals that have come to depend on it are diverse and we were tempted to stay a night to watch what came down for evening and dawn drinks. We spotted a couple of emus but decided that we had time left in the day to push on and find a camp in the adjoining Simpson Desert Reserve- a positive being once across into this reserve we were allowed to have a campfire again (they weren’t permitted in Witjira).
We ended up in one of the many small flat camps that occur alongside the tracks across the Simpson – basically cleared, flat, soft ground in the valleys between dunes that were ideal for camping. The local dingo came along the top of the sand dune to see who we were and then – without any fear or seemingly any real interest in us – slipped away into the desert again. The diverse animal tracks in the sand dunes showed how much wildlife there was out here but we knew we weren’t going to see much of the nocturnal critters.
The next morning we got back on the track following about 10kms behind two cars of fellow travellers who had driven past our camp as we were packing up. Listening to them on the radio gave us some idea of what was lying ahead. With the going good, they decided to keep going along the French Line which is the most direct route across the desert – basically a straight line between Dalhousie and Poepell Corner on the other side of the desert. We had been warned off that track as it is very damaged from too many vehicles – some towing trailers and many not thinking about what damage they were doing as large convoys churned up the sand and, rather than reversing carefully when they got stuck up a dune, instead sat there spinning their wheels in a futile attempt to find traction – only digging big holes in the track that almost made it impossible for others to safely get through.
We decided on the longer but arguably more scenic, safer and achievable route around the Rig Road, Knolls Track, a short section of the French Line and then finally the QAA line across to Birdsville. We only made 108kms over about 5 hours of driving. We saw no one except for a couple who were going slow with a gearbox or transfer case issue – only a minor fluid leak we surmised and we left them to amble along. We camped near the Lone Gum – a Coolibah Tree that is outstanding because of its size and it being the only individual in the whole desert. There seems to be a few seedlings trying to survive as well. How it got here? We decided that possibly it was brought by Aborigines as seed which was a highly utilised food source – not impossible for a seed to be transported accidentaly or deliberately from camp to camp.
Rather than tackling the straight line of theFrench Track west to east over non-stop sand dunes, the route we opted for has sections sections of track that turn north or south and traverse the sometimes wide expansive interdune valleys between the dunes running parallel to the dunes. It’s a great way to see the desert and appreciate the scale of the dune system and the diversity of the vegetation. One camp we had an off-road buggy and three trailbikes come through on a mission across the desert.
We turned off the Rig Road which keeps heading in a south-easterly direction to eventually meet up with the Birdsville Track (although the roads are impassable due to flooding at the moment). Onto the Knolls Track and we headed north, stopping at the Approdinna Attora Knolls which are a relic from the past – high outcrops that show the original land surface. Very fragile and also of Aboriginal significance.
Shortly after that we turned east again onto the French Line…..as expected the track deteriorated and the sand dunes were much harder going than what we had experienced so far. Up until this point there had been at least three different route options for travellers crossing the desert and the traffic volume was spread. But now every vehicle had to use the one track and the deep loose sand, holes and damaged sand dune crests were making it slow going – definitely any delusional thoughts we had a pulling up at the Birdsville Hotel today for a celebratory drink were quickly put to rest.
The positive though was the lack of oncoming vehicles which let us focus on getting over each dune rather than worrying about who or what was on the other side. We reached Poeppel Corner that marks the intersection of three states – NT, SA and Queensland. We took the usual photo of each of us standing together – yet in different states – at first no one wanted to be in Queensland which is understandable but eventually we spread across the three states. The story of Poeppel was interesting – a huge effort measuring and surveying the boundaries in such a remote and inhospitable part of the continent – only to find that his measuring chain had stretched in the heat and from such intensive use and his original corner was actually a couple of hundred metres out!
Back in the car we crossed from South Australia into the Northern Territory but only for about 20kms before crossing into Queensland and starting our final leg of the trip on the QAA Line to Birdsville. We found a camp and set up for our final night in the desert. In the twilight a dingo came in and trotted circles around the camp checking out what snacks might be on offer – not realising, or at least not acknowledging, that Josh was sitting at the dwindling campfire metres away.
The next morning fresh prints over our tyre marks showed that a camel had walked past in the night. We got going and found the going was slow and rough. Added to this we started getting noise on the UHF that let us know other travellers were starting to come close and possibly were coming towards us.
The QAA Line has set up a unique markers system with call signs every five kilometres or so – each post with a unique code – we started at “Q24” and could call that (something like “One vehicle; eastbound; Q24”) on the radio and other people knew that we were coming and approximately where we were. We encountered a mix of single vehicles, two vehicles together and then the good old 4WD club convoy of six vehicles – being a single vehicle we pulled over when we made contact and let the convoys come through. After seeing almost no one in the desert it seemed like we’d hit a busy day.
Eventually we came to a sign that said “Big Red” and we realised we’d reached the final dune of 1100. Being an accessible tourist attraction, there were two cars on top of the dune and other people who had walked up from the other side. The spectators didn’t bother us – we were expert dune crossers now – nothing could stop us. Yes, yes, of course we got stuck half way up. Down we went in reverse and took this dune a bit more seriously – it’s actually really big! A good run up and we popped up onto the top of the dune – it’s huge even on top with a large flat area to park and have a look around.
Soon after we were on a bitumen road and had to stop to pump up our very low tyre pressure. And then half an hour later we drove into Birdsville. We even hit mobile reception on a school day and Miss Swan was helpful enough to fit us in outside our normal scheduled time. Birdsville has a bakery that does a roaring trade and we plonked down for a great lunch of camel pies – plus a beer because this isn’t a normal bakery…this little gem of the outback is licensed with beer and wine to wash down the awesome pies!
We set up camp just out of town on the Diamantina River – what an amazing oasis of water and loud birdlife after being in the silence of the desert where mostly the only evidence of wildlife was the prints of all the different nocturnal animals in the sand. An afternoon beer at the Birdsville Hotel looking through the photos and stories on all the walls – and a bit of time sitting out the front of the pub watching the hectic peak hour traffic go by on the main street (well, a small plane landed on the airstrip across the road anyway). And then some dinner at the pub with a glass of cab sav or three to balance the palate. You couldn’t half tell we’d been in the desert for five days!