Duel with the Simpson Desert

RoyalAuto magazine

One traveller’s nightmare is Anson Cameron’s dream trip, pounding the red waves of the Simpson Desert in a stoic four-wheel-drive.  

Photos: Getty.
July 2018.


Out west of Birdsville in Queensland the desert lies behind a wall called Big Red – its first and most famous dune. Deflate your tyres and gun over this dune and you are officially in the Simpson Desert. 

The first day’s drive, heading west along the QAA Line, is an endless raging storm of red waves with dimpled faces coming at you 30 metres high, one after another. You must meet them or become becalmed, so brace yourself. It’s a trade-off of comfort for momentum; run at ’em hard enough to pummel the suspension or you won’t get over.

At the crest of each dune, off the hood of the Prado, blue sky appears for one hanging moment before great swathes of grey and olive-green valley open up below as you fall off the back of the wave, like a surfer done with his ride.

‘To sit atop a dune at sunset in the dying light, surrounded by the many aural tones of wind and the corrugated distance ... this is why you enter a desert.’

It is peak hour in the Simpson. This day we pass perhaps 20 cars coming toward us, west-to-east, with the prevailing wind, up the more gradual faces of the dunes. We talked to most on the UHF radio so we didn’t meet them nose-to-nose at the crest of a dune. The people who come here are an unlikely mix of four-wheel-drive nuts and nature lovers.

We cross Eyre Creek. Dry now, it flows massively every few years and the water ends up in Lake Eyre. After another slew of dunes we stop in a valley to set up camp for the night. 

Keeping a low profile: soldier termites, galahs, and a host of invisible nocturnal ‘desertlings’ inhabit the Simpson.

The hollow between the dunes is forested with trees as stunted, gnarled and venerable as the olive groves of the classical world. There are desert oak, and hakeas as spiky and hard as coral, and acacias, the colony wattle, the prickly wattle, the stinking wattle and the dead finish, so called because it is found alive at the end of even the longest drought. Its lush blossom seems as unlikely here as the proverbial snowflake’s chance in hell. Yet here it is in abundance.

To sit atop a dune at sunset in the dying light, surrounded by the many aural tones of wind and the corrugated distance ... this is why you enter a desert. The old limitless world reincarnate ... primordial Eden with dingo howling to dingo. The stars are close here, wheeling about the south celestial pole like seeds in a vortex. 

'It is as much journey as it is destination; days of winding travel, holding on, bounced and jounced in the low, grunting gears.’

This far from water you don’t see many animals. You could be forgiven for thinking this place was a vast arboretum with no creatures. But at dawn, you may witness the many tracks of the desertlings.

Each dune is patterned with the history of countless nocturnal journeys, the different gaits and purposes of the many underground animals: dunnarts, antechinus, skinks, dragons, monitors and more.

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.

We were bogged twice crossing the desert, but 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. When you’re genuinely dependent on a piece of machinery you tend to anthropomorphise it, even become sweet on it. I began to develop a crush on our new stoic and uncomplaining Prado.

After three days on the Hay River Track we arrived at Batton Hill bush camp, run by Jol Fleming and the Bookie family. There is water here and wood-fired donkeys (hot-water boilers) provide hot showers. A night at the camp costs $20 per person. The traditional owners will take you on a bush-tucker tour and for a viewing of Goyder’s Pillar, a spectacular red mesa. From Batton Hill it’s a mere 460-kilometre drive along a fence line and west down the Plenty Highway to Alice Springs.


Fast facts

  • The Hay River Track links the northern and southern sections of the desert and stretches for 620 kilometres from Birdsville in Queensland to Jervois Station in the Northern Territory. The track is suitable for experienced drivers with four-wheel-drive vehicles and permits and fees are required.
  • The Simpson Desert covers 176,500 square kilometres and takes in parts of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland.

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