Simpson Desert, July ‘95


The parallel sand ridges of the Simpson Desert have both threatened and fascinated generations of Australians. Relatively easy access is barely forty years old, and makes use of the survey lines and equipment tracks of oil prospecting and drilling teams. The Land Rover Club crossed the Simpson (West to East) in 1978 navigating by compass bearing much as Colson did on his first West-East and East-West crossings (by camel) in 1937. Colson died in a motor accident while preparing to attempt the first vehicular crossing. Now the major tracks are well defined – but not made any easier – by thousands of vehicle crossings annually. The challenge is in the sand dune crossings and there are many hundreds of these. The dunes can be kilometres in length, and run parallel to the prevailing SSE winds. The interdune spacing is relatively free of sand being swept clear by essentially stationary, almost symmetrically disposed pairs of vortices between successive dunes, and it is suggested that this explains the stability (and self repairing ability) observed in the dune structure. However, stability is not the same as stationarity in this context, and sand does propagate along the dune crests from South to North. This effect is most evident on the clay capped crossings of the equipment roads such as the rig road where steep, narrow, sand ridges, maybe as much as two to three metres in height, form above the capping. On the sand crossings swirling wind can hollow out quite deep holes as a further trap for the unwary. Salt lakes (especially in the South-East) and claypans are common between the dunes. They can make life difficult after rain when they should be bypassed on the northern (sandy) side.

Our aim was an East-West crossing, and some more extensive exploring to the South of the desert, to complement our West-East crossing of the previous year which used the French line. Our partners were Terry and Jan Miller who had been part of the group that made the 1978 crossing. They arrived in Birdsville on the 16th, crossing the desert West to East on the French line. We were due to meet them on the 17th, arriving in Birdsville via Connumulla and Windorah. Unfortunately, the due date coincided with 1.5" of rain, and the fifth good fall since April. This closed the Birdsville and Cordillo Downs tracks, and there appeared to be no good reason why the Beetoota road should not have suffered the same fate. We did slither into Birdsville on the 17th, much later than intended, generously covered in mud, and with much gratuitous practice in driving in extremely slippery conditions. We had intended the 18th as a rest day, a good idea that just got better as we watched a bedraggled procession of vehicles arriving from the desert with stories of slippery claypans and difficult creek crossings.

Our plan had been to use the K1 road for access, but the Warburton had flooded and the access was closed. We did meet a car that has spent 18 hours stuck in the river, suggesting that the restriction was sensible. The alternative was the popular route over `Big Red’, and Terry fell in with the standard camouflage by collecting some mud on the way out. We had some interested spectators as we reduced tyre pressures, selected low range third , and disappeared over the dune. In retrospect it was overkill. The sand was still drying out and gave plenty of traction. The Discovery would not use low range again except when completely off road. The claypan on the west side of Big Red had been reported as causing trouble and was still flooded so we bypassed this to the north.

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Terry crossing Big Red – the crest is false and he is just coming to the interesting bit

We were warned about this claypan and bypassed it to the north



We had lunch at Eyre Creek which had subsided and caused us no trouble, and we camped at Lake Poeppel where there were possibly two other parties. The story in Birdsville had been that some fifty vehicles had been marooned there two nights previously (school holiday traffic). To prove we had actually started , Jan cooked a magnificent roast dinner in the camp oven.



Poeppel Corner

The corner point – leaving the Northern Territory

Our plan was to head south on the K1 road, then east on the rig road to find a track heading south on the Poolowanna 250,000:1 map but lacking a continuation on the Nooleyana map. If there was a continuation we argued, then it would take us close to Kalacoopa Creek. We visited the lone gum tree and then turned down our track which was found without difficulty – obviously it had a reasonable amount of use – and first off it brought us to a super campsite in a grassy depression surrounded by sand dunes. A Silva GPS was used to encode the limited information we had on the proposed route, and next day we pressed on, although pausing to give a herd of camels right of way. We soon found reasons why the maps should have had more information as we passed a succession of concrete survey benchmarks, crossed a clay capped equipment road of by no means recent origin, and made easy and rapid progress towards our goal.

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The lone gum tree

Camels on that well-used track

Our next idea was to use a second East-West road in this allegedly trackless region to reach a salt lake that we reckoned we could skirt and that would bring us almost to a northern loop of the Kalacoopa. It did, and after a modicum of off-road driving we came to an East-West claypan-like object made up of a sequence of shallow pools. Gloria threatened dire consequences if I made any attempt to cross without checking first. Very sensible, I didn’t fall flat but that was just good luck. Terry thought I should try crossing so he could practice pulling me out. Sanity prevailed! We checked our position on the GPS. This showed we had just avoided being bogged in the Kalacoopa itself. At least it had some water in it! Returning to our SSE track, we reckoned it too should cross the Kalacoopa if it kept going. Again the hunch proved correct and we met the creek again at a large dry lagoon invaded from the south by a spectacular white dune. We would have liked to continue exploring further. There are some fine pictures of waterholes along the Kalacoopa in Mark Shephard’s splendid book, and there is the question of where that excellent track lead, but we had to watch the fuel in the Landcruiser, and so returned to the business of crossing the desert.

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First contact with the Kalacoopa

Dry lagoon on the Kalacoopa invaded by a spectacular white dune

We left the white dunes of the southern desert behind as we retraced our steps northward, most of the time running between yellow senecio daisies that covered the dunes in an amazing display, and they were just the most obvious in a profusion of wild flowers. However, Terry and Jan were not so impressed by their first Gidgee in flower. It is not called the stinking wattle for nothing! The schedule now saw us return to the rig road, then to the Erabeena track, to the WAA line as far as the Colson track, to the French line (my fault, we should have stayed on the WAA line which was in much better condition). Camp was planned at Purni bore where a hot shower and pit toilet facilities have been added since last year when the best we could do was a sort of swim in a pool by the bore. Apparently extensive further facilities are planned.

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There were wild flowers in profusion

The WAA line was in much better condition than the French line

We saw our first travellers for three days on the French line, but had Purni (reached in early afternoon) to ourselves. Plenty of time to have a shower and to explore the other new facilities that include a bird hide in the wetlands. Next day my X2 Codan , which had been increasingly uncooperative, gave up the ghost. We had been relying on it to provide an intercom facility using the 2020 band. The weather was overcast with a cold wind, but I was having a swim at Dalhousie no matter what. It is planned to house a permanent ranger here, and it seems regulation of cross desert traffic will soon be with us. Then lunch at Mt. Dare where the Landcruiser refuelled despite the imaginative pricing (10% more imaginative than last year I noticed) and on to Old Andado by late afternoon. Molly Clark was most hospitable, if given to direct questions – at 86 there’s no point in wasting time getting to know you! It was an easy run into Alice Springs next day. Terry had radioed ahead to make bookings at the McDonald Ranges caravan park (recommended). Cleaning off the Discovery proved an interesting exercise of almost archeological proportions, but I wonder what the next patron made of the load of clay from the Beetoota road that made up a substantial part of the last layer to peel off. From Birdsville we had come 1390 kilometres and the Discovery had used 133 litres of fuel (we had started with 163 litres – 80 in jerry cans). Terry was confident of better than 1000 kilometres in the land cruiser which is fitted with an auxiliary tank).

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Dalhousie Springs

Molly Clark at Old Andado

We enjoyed Alice Springs which reminded us of an Australian Santa Fe. Gloria was very impressed by the stained glass in the Araluen Centre. The radio proved to have poor aerial connection which required the replacement of an elbow connector. After a few days Terry , Jan and JB headed North with some prospecting in mind. We planned a few days in the Western McDonalds. We spent an afternoon in Ormiston Gorge before camping at Redbank Gorge which proved very photogenic in the early morning.

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Ormiston Gorge

Redbank Gorge


We had lunch next day at Grosse Bluff, and then passed through Hermannsburg before heading down to the Boggy Hole on the Finke River. We spent two nights in this most attractive spot which belies its name. There were two other parties here on the second night, and one other vehicle passed through.

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The Boggy Hole from the eastern cliffs

Sunset in Rainbow Valley

The road south led to the Henbury meteorite crater. The strong wind made this a less than ideal lunch spot, and we soon pressed on to Rainbow Valley which was our planned camp site. The wind was a problem here too, making pitching a tent an interesting exercise. The cliffs are very spectacular, and this is intensified at sunset when, for a few moments, when the light is just right, there are fantastic glowing colours. They were all the more enjoyable as the wind dropped with the sunset. Next day we headed homeward. We left the Stuart Highway at Coober Pedy and headed to William Creek which we reached at sunset. We planned to camp at Coward Springs. This meant driving down the Oodnadatta Track in the dark. Here the sleepers from the old Ghan railway have been put to imaginative use. The spa built over the spring was our aim, but it has been complemented by hot showers if you believe the water heater.

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There are now hot showers at Coward Springs

Railway sleepers provide a spa-like setting for the spring

Next day we headed for the Gammon ranges to renew our acquaintance with Grindell’s Hut and Bunyip Chasm. We camped for two nights below Grindells. There had been heavy rain in the East so we kept on the bitumen from Yunta, staying at Wentworth overnight and then heading back to Canberra.