The Hay River Track turns off the QAA Line at Poeppel Lake saltpan, just short of Poeppel Corner, where two states and a territory meet. A small piece of tin attached to a star picket points north. The track, running along interdunal valleys, occasionally crossing over from one to the next, was cut in 2000 by Jol Fleming and traditional owner Lindsay Bookie.
Jol’s parents were Baptist missionaries at Yuendumu from 1950, and he and his brother Adrian grew up with Warlpiri Aboriginal children for friends. You pay a small fee to the Bookie family now to travel the track.
Shortly after turning onto it we ran into two four-wheel drives coming our way, crossing the Simpson north to south. Over the UHF radio the driver of one said to us, “Welcome to our nightmare.” I mention this because it holds a warning. To a certain sort of person, unprepared, unresearched, this will be an arduous trip. It is as much journey as it is destination; days of winding travel, holding on, bounced and jounced in the low, grunting gears.
On the upside, arduousness keeps away those who think arduousness a nightmare. We passed four vehicles in three days on the Hay River Track. You camp alone, wherever you want, and the only camps more remote must be polar.
'Getting bogged in sand is an energising misadventure, soon remedied with some digging by hand, a snatch strap, and some chiding of the unlucky driver.’
To begin with, trees are small and birds are scarce. Only the brown falcon is this far from water. But within half a day, the first weedy eucalypts appear, signalling where the rivers spill into the desert. And, with the trees, the willy wagtail and the butcher bird, the woodswallow and honeyeaters, and eventually zebra finches, begin to appear. You are travelling upstream, from where the water flows out into the desert, north to its headwaters, and the river, though dry as dust, is nevertheless becoming mightier by the mile.
Eventually the track follows a flat-based pink-sand riverbed hundreds of metres wide, pocked with camel and dingo tracks and skirted by mighty red gums and ghost gums. The fresh camel tracks everywhere in the Simpson have you on constant lookout for the perpetrators, but, for an animal so big, they are puzzlingly elusive. Another hand-painted tin sign on a star picket announces the Tropic of Capricorn.