CROSSING THE SIMPSON DESERT
3 June 2017
Total days – 13
Route – Adelaide|Coober Pedy|Arckaringa|Oodnadatta|Dalhousie|Mt Dare| Simpson Desert|Birdsville|Adelaide.
Total Distance – 3180km (1975mi)
In any country, I believe, its roots lie in its rural areas. To me, this is where life began. Where its peoples’ hard work, sacrifices and determination lead to what we reap today. It ‘s like taking a trip into the chapters of history.
Being relatively new to Australia I always wanted to travel to the outback. Not just to pass through ancient landscapes that date back well beyond the Jurassic era, but also to learn about its more recent past as well as meet the locals. So when my brother-in-law mentioned the idea of crossing the Simpson Desert I immediately gave into temptation.
The Simpson Desert (also known as Munga Thirri by the indigenous owners of the land -which means ‘big sand hill country’) is the fourth largest desert in Australia covering an area of approximately 176,000 Sq Kms (68,000 Sq mi). It is the largest sand dune desert in the world. It also contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes (some around 200km long). Approximately 1100 of these dunes make up the desert and we were going be crossing all these as we traversed from the west end of the desert to the east. (read more – the Simpson Desert)
Adding more intrigue to this already fascinating land of red sand was the The Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest inland drainage areas in the world, underlying the Simpson. Water from the basin comes up to the surface in the form of natural hot water springs. In our trip we were going to see two of these.
However, this trip was going to be a lot more than just crossing the Simpson. With 13 days in hand, our 3180km (1975 mile) route would take us through several remote towns and locations, each with its own unique history and charm.
My journey started from Adelaide (South Australia) whilst all the others came from Melbourne (800kms South of Adelaide). Meeting up in Adelaide, in a convoy of three 4x4s, the six of us started our adventure on a Saturday mid-afternoon. This was the first Simpson crossing for all of us, so we were in pretty high spirits.
We overnighted in Pt Pierie before heading off to our first destination.
Our first stop was Coober Pedy. To me this dusty little town, famous for it’s Opal mines, was like a frontier town before getting into the outback proper. Dusty and rough as it may first appear, Coober Pedy possessed a unique charm. It was a far cry from the well-organized, manicured cities we are accustomed to, but its random haphazardness was quite refreshing compared to the mundane routine of the large cities.
Our trip was in June, the start of the winter season, so the temperatures were very comfortable. Outback towns, such as Coober Pedy are known for their summer temperatures reaching as high 50 degrees centigrade (122 Fahrenheit). We thankfully escaped this.
Due to the insanely high temperatures, many live in underground homes known as “dug-outs.” Amazingly these homes have a constant, all year round, temperature of 25 degrees centigrade (77 Fahrenheit) with almost no moisture. To gain the experience we spent our two nights in an underground lodge.
Having driven into Coober Pedy late into the evening, the nighttime winter temperatures had set in. Yet walking into our “underground” accommodation was quite a pleasant welcome. It was like walking into a building where the central heating radiated out from all walls, floors and ceilings.
The next day was an early morning start for me. With a piping hot cup of coffee in hand, I made my way to a nearby hill top to watch the Sun come up over the interesting landscape of Coober Pedy. With all the Opal mining that has gone on over the years (and continuing to do so) soil excavated from the mining tunnels are dumped randomly all over the landscape. The thousands of cone-shaped soil mounds stretching as far as the eye can see appears quite artistically laid resulting in a truly unique landscape. Add to this the patches of red sand and you have a colourful tapestry for your eyes to feast on. Joining me to watch the sunrise was a neighborhood Rottie who seemed to know where the best vantage point was.
This environment has, in the years gone by, been a sought-after movie location. Some of these include – Ground Zero, Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome), Until The End Of The World, Pitch Black and Red Planet. Some of the props still lay scattered in the town centre.
There are quite a number of other interesting facts about Coober Pedy one of which is, up until the late 1980s, one could do their grocery shopping as well as buy dynamite at the local supermarket. Another is, there are the two versions of Coober Pedy’s population: the official and the unofficial. The 2011 census stated that were 1695 residents living there. But even the local council laughs at that figure, claiming it to be nearer to “around 3500”. So why the difference? Let’s just say that the town is a great place to come to get a “fresh start”.
We spent the better part of the morning driving around the town and also went on an opal mine tour. Our tour guide, a retired miner, was a wealth of information. Unlike mining for other minerals, mining for Opal is much to do with luck as there is no way to pre-determine exactly where the opals may be. Those who are adventurous enough will lay a stake to an area and then pour in all their resources in the hope of striking it rich. Not all do though.
KANKU-BREAKAWAYS CONSERVATION PARK
Before I set off on this trip, a friend (a seasoned outback traveler) said there was nothing quite like a cold beer whilst watching the sunset at the Breakways. So not wanting to miss out on this experience we headed out on the 35km drive from Coober Pedy.
This conservation park covers approximately 15,000 hectares. This ancient seabed offers fascinating rock formations, hills and cliff edges randomly scattered on a barren desert landscape. The name “Breakways” was given by the European settlers, as the formations seem to break away from each other. The traditional owners of the land are the Antakirinja Mantuntjara Yankunytjatjara aboriginal people. The name Kanku is the name given by the latter, meaning “shelter” as it is a place that provided shelter to all living beings for thousands of years.
Further enhancing this vast landscape is the coarse deep red patches of sand almost mimicking that of Mars (I am yet to tour Mars, so this is what I was told). No wonder it a popular si-fi movie location.
Another sight to take in is the Dingo Fence better known as the Dog Fence, built by farmers during the 1880s to keep Dingos (type of wild dog) away from their livestock. By the time it was completed, it spanned a distance of 5,614km (3,488mi) making this fence one of the longest man-made structures in the world. The fence is still maintained to this day.
We eventually made our way to a cliff edge where we pulled out our chairs, some cold beers and watched the sun set behind the Breakways. No better way to end the second day of our trip.
CADNEY | ARKARINGA | OODNADATTA |DALHOUSIE
Saying goodbye to Coober Pedy, we headed out quite early next day - destination Dalhousie Springs. This was a 500km (310mi) drive, but after a mere 150km (93mi) of bitumen we were going to be in the outback proper. No serious “4x4ing” but the rest of the route was full of corrugations, slowing us down quite considerably.
We stopped at Cadney Homestead caravan park for a quick refresher and then got off the bitumen heading towards Oodnadatta.
One of the things I enjoy during my travels is making it a point to speak to the locals at every stop so that I get to know more about the place. As we did not spend much time at this location it was difficult to have a lengthy conversation with the friendly attendant in the restaurant. She did, however, give me a brief history of the cattle station, pointing me to the many memorabilia displayed.
Reducing our tire pressures for a better ride and handling, we got onto the dirt. It was going to be dirt and sandy roads for the next 2,500 or so kilometers (1550mi).
The drive to Oodnadatta took us through Arkaringa Homestead and The Painted Desert, an ancient 80 million year old seabed scattered with many hills and rock formations formed due to rain and erosion over the years. Shale on the surfaces of these hills offers different vibrant colours as the Sun changes it’s position. Particularly shades of orange, red, brown, yellow and white. Spending a day exploring this amazing location is well worth it. Sunrises and Sunsets will no doubt be a delight to all photographers.
What we saw at The Breakaways was similar formations, however, the perspective was from the higher elevations of cliff edges. In The Painted Desert, we actually drove in between the formations, a ground-up perspective you could say. Unfortunately, during our trip planning stage, we did not plan to spend more time, than drive through, in this location. Also, most of the others in our convoy were not so much into soaking in landscapes in depth. One thing for sure, the next time I do this route again (and my advice to those planning this route) is to spend at least a day in The Painted Desert. Arkaringa homestead has camping and basic facilities.
The bone-jarring corrugations slowed us down quite a bit, reaching Oodnadatta around 4 pm, making it quite clear that it would be well into the night by the time we reached our destination Dalhousie springs.
A waterhole in the late 1800s, mainly for camel caravans, the town of Oodnadatta came to being as a government supply hub to the cattle stations when the railway lines ran through. With the demise of the rail line in the 1980s, Oodnadatta is now mainly home to Indigenous Australians who live and travel to work in the surrounding cattle stations. The town’s main source of income seems tourism from, those like us, traveling the Outback.
An icon putting Oodnadatta on every over-lander’s list of “must visit” places is The Pink Roadhouse. Another unique Outback pub aptly named after its pink exterior and interior. This was a great place to take a break from the driving, freshen up (dusting off all the sand), fill our bellies and fill our fourbies’ (4x4s) tanks. The Oodnaburger came highly recommended, but think we caught the chef at an off time, the burger in itself did not live up to the hype. However, taken in the context of the burger being a small part of a bigger outback vibe presented by this town, it tasted special.
As the Sun started disappearing into the western horizon we left Oodnadatta, heading towards Dalhousie springs.
The 164km (101mi) drive was mostly in the dark, something I would try to avoid in future travels (and not recommend to overlanders) as the darkness prevents the traveler from basking in some unique landscapes.
DALHOUSIE SPRINGS | DALHOUSIE RUINS
I mentioned earlier on about hot water springs we would be visiting en route. Well, Dalhousie springs is one of them and certainly the larger of the two. It is part of the Witjira National Park which forms the western border of the Simpson desert.
Dalhousie Springs is also the location of a South Australian government-run camping facility where we would be spending the next two days. Basic facilities are available here. However, the most welcoming for all travelers is the hot water spring which maintains a steady 33 degrees Centigrade (91 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year. Might not be such a comfortable place during the summer months, but it certainly is a heavenly place to relax during winter.
We arrived at Dalhousie campsite late into the night and quickly set up camp. After a quick meal, succumbed to tiredness, we climbed into our tents and crashed for the night. Well at least some of us thought we could.
OUR VERY OWN ORCHESTRA
At the planning stage, we felt it would be a lot quicker in setting up and breaking down camp if we took one large eight-person tent. This was certainly true. Having spent our previous nights in lodges, this was the first night of our trip camping and the setup was relatively easy. However, this arrangement did have other major drawbacks and the extent of the horror about to unfold was hinted to me when one of the guys in the group (who knew the rest better than I did) put on a set of earplugs as he turned in for the night. Thankfully I had my iPhone headset so managed to drown out the human orchestral snoring instruments with some soothing music. Synchronised to perfection, the performance went on well beyond the crack of dawn.
Sunrises are quite special to me as it is the time when the outback comes to life. I felt this would be an even more spectacular view from the hot water spring, so braving the winter morning cold, I made my way to the spring. Getting into the warm water from the chilly breeze sweeping across was heavenly. The spring was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool with most part of it no deeper than shoulder height.
Another highlight in Dalhousie is the Dalhousie homestead ruins, the remains of a cattle station that existed from 1873 till 1985. Since its demise, the station and the ruins have become part of the Witjira National Park.
Ruins such as this can be found all over the outback in Australia. A testament to how tough a breed of people of that time was to brave the harsh landscape in search of a better life. Despite being in the company of five others, I was taken aback by the sensation of solitude in the middle of a harsh land that stretched as far as the horizon in every direction. The many graves (of those who worked in the cattle station and those just passing through) emphasized the harsh reality of the time. If only the walls could talk. I would have preferred to spend more time exploring this location and getting to know it more intimately, but after a short spend, it was time to move on. Each ruin has its own unique story and so does Dalhousie. I had read much about Dalhousie but being there in person put it in an eerie perspective. (Read more – Dalhousie ruins).
Mt DARE HOTEL
Mt Dare was once a cattle station, which just like Dalhousie is now part of the Witjira National Park. Not much to see, however, a visit to the iconic outback pub – Mt Dare Hotel is a must. Outback pubs are iconic watering holes for modern day travelers as they were a long time ago for travelers of the time. Located only 70km (44mi) from Dalhousie springs, we made the pilgrimage, all in the name of savoring a beer and a pasty (pastry) whilst meeting and making new friends with like-minded fellow travelers. (From Dalhousie there is an easier and a difficult route to Mt Dare Hotel. Click here for details).
Apart from refreshments for us humans, Mt Dare Hotel also has fuel supply available along with fresh clean water. So filling up our vehicles’ tanks we bid farewell to the hosts at the hotel and made our way back to another night of camping at Dalhousie.
The idea was to get back to our camp before darkness set in, but this was not to be as we had to make running repairs to one of our vehicles. An aftermarket fitment had worked itself loose, nothing too serious. We spent the better part of an hour attending to this. A good reminder to regularly check your vehicle when traveling in the outback, rather than waiting for something to go wrong, as it was the case with us here.
Eventually, we got back to camp, had dinner and then back into the warm spring pool in the dead of the night. Life could not get any better.
SIMPSON (aka SIMMO) - MUNGA THIRRI
To some travelers, the Simmo would be the highlight of their entire trip, however, to me, every location is a unique highlight. So, having had six amazing days so far, we were about to embark on yet another highlight.
Having had our last hot spring dipping, it was time to pack up and head into the Simpson Desert.
As we drove out of Dalhousie campsite, pointing eastwards was a signpost directing us towards the Simpson. The sight of this stirred our excitement, as we would be spending the next few days in the Simpson.
Driving through this unique landscape was quite similar to riding a rollercoaster. Only, in this case it was a lot more exhilarating. The sand dunes vary in height from mere 3 meters (10 feet) to as much as 30 meters (100 fee), each dune getting higher and higher as we headed east. Climbing each dune (each getting higher than the one before as we progressed) was a rapturous delight bringing out the 4x4 enthusiast in us. With the engine wailing away we would power our trusted fourbies (4x4s) to the top of each sand dune. For a few minutes all we would see in front of us is blue skies. Then, as this would seem to last for ever, the front of the vehicle would hit the crest and dip down, taking the visual senses from exhilaration to awe as the vast landscape in the valley below suddenly came to view. This stimuli of the senses would go on and on for the next 1000 odd dunes as we traversed through a land which changed it’s appearance from vast stretches of desert vegetation (growing out of red sand) to expanses of bright white salt pans. All this happened when we least expected it. Forget alcohol, this was like being high on some drug and we could not get enough of it.
The time of year and the weather can make a huge impact on terrain conditions. At times, rains can make the Simpson impassable. In our case we were traveling during winter and there had not been any rain leading up to our arrival and nor were any rains predicted.
There are no designated campsites in the Simpson. Bush camping wherever you fancied (not to far from the designated tracks though). So each day, we made it a point to set up camp about two hours before nighttime set in.
After a long day of driving, there is nothing quite like sinking into a comfy camp chair, with a liquid refreshment in hand, watching the setting sun throw out a kaleidoscope of varying colours and shadow patterns on the vast landscape stretching as far as the eye could see. The vastness and the utter silence makes one realize just how insignificantly miniscule we are as humans in nature’s larger scheme of things.
The nights were spent in front of the campfire, with our resident chef cooking up a storm. After a scrumptious meal, a different kind of storm would take over the senses, as yarns took over the conversations, bringing out the best in all of us thanks to intoxication.
The mornings in the Simmo are as breathtaking as its Sunsets. It all starts with a speck of light in the far horizon, graciously casting a spread of golden hues as the Sun makes it’s grand appearance signaling the birth of another brand new day.
As the spread of light widens, morning freshness captivates the heart with chirping of birds breaking the otherwise dead silence of the vast ancient landscape.
When crossing the Simpson desert, there are a number of different tracks that can be taken. In the early days, these tracks were used mostly to access oil drilling sites. We decided to take the FRENCH TRACK, first developed and used by a French Petroleum Company to access their oil wells, thus the name. We also took a little detour on the WAA line (see map), spending one night on this track.
As we headed eastwards, a few Kilometers before the official start of the Simpson, was the last oasis we would see. This was Purni bore. An artificially created well, which was first drilled by the French. The bore pumps out hot water from the Great Artesian Basin. When oil exploration ended in the early 1980s, the bore was left to flow wildly creating an artificial wetland attracting wildlife and many bird species. At one time the authorities had wanted to cap the bore completely, however for the fear of disrupting the environment that had grown around the bore, it was only partially capped allowing a limited flow.
Camping with hot water showers is available at Purni Bore. For us this was not a planned stop. So we made a brief stop to see the wetland and then were on our way.
The Simpson desert spans over the three states, namely, South Australia(SA), Northern Territories(NT) and Queensland(QLD). The French Track ended at the eastern end of the South Australian part of the desert. Thereafter we turned onto the QAA line which starts a little into Queensland. This took us over the Big Red and into the town of Birdsville.
Before getting onto the QAA line we spent a short time at the unique location of "Poeppel Corner", where all three states meet, three different time zones.
(Read more – Poeppel Corner - Who is Poeppel?).
BIG RED - The Mother of all dunes
At a towering height of 30 meters (100 feet) “The Big Red” sand dune, last of the 1100 parallel dunes making up the Simpson, signified the end of the Simpson crossing for us. As per tradition, the journey is not complete (for 4x4 enthusiast) without climbing to the top of the mother of all dunes. So keeping to tradition, several attempts later, all three heavily laden fourbies were parked on the top whilst we celebrated the epic crossing.
The sparsely populated (approximately 100 people) town of Birdsville was a welcome site for us after having spent the prior several days in the bush. This iconic town located at the bottom edge of QLD (bordering SA) was first established back in the late 1800s to collect toll from the drovers of cattle being moved interstate.
The iconic Birdsville Hotel/Pub is as old as the town itself offering hearty meals and comfortable accommodation to travellers as it had done over a 100 years ago. After checking into our rooms and a much needed hot shower, I made my way to the pub to get a drink and to try and meet some of the locals. I was in for a treat, spending the better part of the evening getting to know one of Birdsville’s well-known locals (and his dog).
Tourism plays a big role in the sustainment of this town. As with any outback pub, Birdsville hotel was full of outback travellers. Some, like us, had just completed the Simpson crossing (West to East) and others were about to start their crossing.
Outback pub meals always taste divine when taken in the context of one’s journey, the environment and the friends keeping you company. My Birdsville dinner of traditional veggies and meat certainly was divine and quite filling. Afterwards, it was back to the pub and a few games of pool with the other travellers before calling it a night.
THE LONG RIDE BACK HOME
The next morning was quite bittersweet as it was also the official end of our trip. I wasn’t looking forward to the long ride back home to Adelaide, so (despite a late previous night in the pub) to make the most of what remained I got up at the crack of dawn to stroll through the town, soaking in the sights, sounds, and the many historical locations. As I walked about, the sleepy little town was slowly coming to life and the distant aroma of camel pies, bread and pasties being freshly baked at the Birdsville bakery lured me in its direction. It was time to, one last time, celebrate our maiden crossing of the Simpson Desert and the end of an epic outback trip with a traditional camel pasty.
As we headed towards home, I bid farewell to the Outback promising to be back soon. There were so many places that remained to be explored. My bucket list just got a whole lot bigger.
Further reading -