Simpson Desert/Hay River Trip Report
25th May – 9th June 2007
by Brenton Siviour
Trip Participants: Rob & Helen French, Ian & Kate McDougall, Lloyd & Reetha Bennett, Bob & Heather Bolto, Brenton & Tony Siviour.
Vehicles: 2 x Mitsubishi Pajeros, 1 x Nissan Patrol, 1 x Toyota Surf, & 1 x Holden Jackaroo.
Clubs: Central Hills 4WD Club and Mitsubishi 4WD Club of SA.
After many months of planning, organising and preparation, the day was finally here, with nervous excitement, my father and I, were packing the final items into my early model Jackaroo. It is amazing that there always seems to be more than you think there should be of those final bits and pieces. It had been nearly 20 years since I had last been up the Birdsville track and wasn’t quite sure what to expect, It was the first time that my Dad had been up that way, and was also the first big trip that I had taken this 4WD on. So when it was all done and goodbyes and well wishes exchanged, we set off on a cool, but clear Mount Barker Friday morning.
The first bit of driving wasn’t any different than any other day, mixing it up with the early morning city traffic, all uptight and on their way to work. It was made easier with the thought of where we were heading and the planned destination for our first night out, Hawker. After the obligatory smoko at the Port Wakefield Bakery, we continued our way up the blacktop to Hawker, via Quorn and the Pichi Richi Pass. We had set off before the main group, with the plan for everyone to meet at the Farina campgrounds on the Saturday, so we had a quiet night out at the Flinders Ranges Caravan Park. Already I had remembered why I love to come up here to these remote places, the clear, crisp, starry nights, the isolation, the quiet, and the feeling of the pioneering spirit, and having to be self sufficient.
Day Two was to be an easy day’s drive to Farina, and as such was in no rush, and arriving at Copley for lunch. A little bit more bitumen and I knew we would be on the dirt, my favourite bit. I was a little surprised that the bitumen continued on after the Lyndhurst Roadhouse and got me wondering, for how far? We did the tourist thing and took my Dad out to see Talc Alf, a political/religious sculptor with some interesting views on how the world should be. I was more interested to find that the studio and dwelling was exactly the same as I remember it some 20 years before, an eerie feeling that time had stood still in this outback celebrities place. Alf, however was nowhere to be seen. Back on the road, and heading out towards Marree, the ‘new’ bitumen didn’t last long, and we were soon at the Farina campgrounds. A fantastic spot, where we made camp, organised our camp oven roast dinner, and waited for the others to roll in. At around 4:00pm the first of the group arrived, Ian & Kate, and not long afterwards the Trip Leader with the rest of our fellow travellers in toe.
The participants in our trip consisted of 4 vehicles from the Central Hills club and 2 from the Mitsubishi club, from which our Trip Leaders, Rob & Helen, have a foot in both camps. It was interesting to meet new people, and I personally think that the idea of combined clubs trips is a great way to expand one’s horizons and options. All the people hit it off really well, essential for what we where about to embark on. The crossing of the Simpson Desert, from South to North, following sections of the Hay River. After a beautiful sunrise, at a lovely campground, we set off for Marree and to start our trek up the Birdsville Track.
Marree, an interesting outback railway town, which again to me hasn’t changed much, but for my Dad, an ex- railway man, a chance to see first hand the renowned town of the old Ghan Railway, after many times hearing tales of a time past, from others and perhaps more so from his mate, Laurie, another train driver, who used to run the steam powered trains, up from Quorn to Marree and Alice Springs. We soon left Marree behind to embark on our trip to Birdsville, via the legendary track that has been made famous by outback icons, such as Tom Kruse, along with the early explorers and pioneers. We, however were travelling in the relative comfort of our four wheel drive vehicles, for our destination of Mungeranie, about half way to Birdsville.
We were up bright and early with a simple breakfast, and keen to get going with the anticipation that we should be in Queensland that night. Our day consisted of dirt road driving with some corrugations, but ultimately the road was good, some geocaching, and photo stops at the Mitta Mitta hot water bore, the SA/Qld border and numerous other interesting landscapes, flora and fauna. Finally we arrived at Birdsville, Queensland, another legendary outback town, with an air of early pioneering life, mixed with modern technology, particularly when you are standing there looking at the old style façade of the Birdsville Hotel, and parked right next door the airstrip with light planes and helicopters, for easier remote area commuting. With two days camp at Birdsville, which provided us with time for repairs, washing, nice showers, tourism and the unfortunate news that John and Sonia, who were to join us at Birdsville would not be able to, due to an accident that John had while working at their friend’s outback station. We supported the local tourism industry by visiting the Outback Working Museum, an eclectic collection of old wares and Australiana that endears the innovative and resourceful pioneers. The Museum is owned and operated by an entertaining and knowledgeable character, by the name of John Menzies, who started the museum and has collected very good condition examples of just about everything, and I mean everything, it has to be seen to be believed. We finished off our stay in Birdsville, with a very nice meal at the pub, and another hot shower, as we knew it would be a few days, before the next one.
As we set off from Birdsville to the Simpson Desert, an air of excitement was building, we were about to set off to do something that we hadn’t done before. Some of us were about to experience this today, and others in the group still had a day or two to wait. After a short pleasant morning drive we arrived at the notorious sand dune - Big Red, and with all the stories I had heard was keen to have a go at conquering the climb up the side of this most difficult mountain of sand. After surveying the situation, by watching people from other groups, and our own attempt the climb, it was obvious to me that to achieve this was going to require a good balance of power, right gear selection and tyre pressures, especially in fully loaded 4 cylinder diesel. It seemed quite difficult with people in their Landcrusiers struggling halfway, and then down for another go, until Ian, in his Patrol made it look like a walk in the park, by just crawling up the side. So as to not take any sides, we did learn, via UHF that the other people making hard work of it, still had there tyre pressures quite high, a lesson in itself. After a couple of practice runs the Jackaroo made it up and over, and I was suitable impressed with it’s capability. Big Red now being able to cross off our things to achieve list, we headed across the Simpson to Poeppel's Corner.
With our Trip Leader dutifully leading us into the wilderness, and the rest of us following quietly behind, taking in all the beauty and uniqueness that the desert has to offer, we transversed the QAA line to Poeppel's Corner with a camp in between, lunch and smoko stops, and the inevitable photo shoots. Quite a popular place really, where you see all types of people and bear witness to interesting events. Lessons can be learnt from both ends of the spectrum from the couple in the 100 series, with trailer in tow, which spent more time in the air than it did on the sand, to the responsibility of the helmet UHF equipped motorcyclists heading to Birdsville. After a brief visit to the Poeppel's Corner site, to complete the obligatory photo shoot and try out the stand in 3 states at once thing, we were now about to embark on the section of the trip that was new to us all.
Turning off the QAA line, north, at the Poeppel's Corner turnoff, we were pampered with a well constructed road heading out towards the abandoned Poeppel Oil Well. After surveying the area and imagining the activity that was here once, highly evident by the graded areas for accommodation, and discarded materials, we continued on to find quite abruptly that our road suddenly changed to a two wheeled track, we now knew this was where the adventure was to begin.
As we begun our push into the northern part of the Simpson Desert, we encountered lovely warm days of around 25 degrees, and cool to cold night of zero or less, typical for the area but very enjoyable, especially when throw a campfire, with poetry and pancakes, and a glass or two of your favourite beverage into the mix. Driving was not difficult and quite fun, although at times the terrain required you to stop and think, to work out the best plan of cross a dune crest. Although we knew of travellers that were not to far in front, after a day or two the wind and shifting sands, did its best to cover over the tracks, so we just had to get out and have a look, before we scurried over the dunes and swales. The wildlife was scarce and much to our surprise, so to were the wildflowers, we encountered a number of camels, a few birds of prey and millions upon millions of bright green wild budgerigars, squeaking and squawking all over the bush.
Continuing on, northward bound, in a somewhat crisscross fashion, we stopped at Madigan’s Blaze tree, and admired all the tokens attached to a row of rusty star pickets, of other clubs and individuals, displayed there in memory of their visit. A little further on we stopped for another camp, another night in the outback, another campfire, life is so difficult at times. The next day we were really starting to encounter the southern end of what was now distinctly the Hay River. A quiet day with the sun beating in through the windscreen, making it very comfortable and quite a struggle to stay awake at times. I figure the rest of the crew was feeling the same, as there wasn’t much chatter on the two-way after lunch. Another camp set up along the track, just like the previous half a dozen, or was it.
Every trip seems to have some anomaly that people seem to remember more than other things that happen along. I thought we had ours, when John fell and hurt his back, not being able to make the trip, but we had a surprise around the corner just waiting to test our skills and teamwork. Just after tea this night, in the dark, and while we were sitting around the campfire, we heard someone crying just behind us near Rob and Helen’s car, as we rushed over to have a look, we found Helen, on the ground clutching her wrist, and upon further examination found that she had a suspected broken wrist. It was action stations for the crew, and everyone pitched in with some first aid, support and assistance, after the situation was under control for the evening, it was decided to reassess what to do next in the morning.
After an eventful evenings activities, it was decided due to the comfort of the patient that we would continue and monitor the injury as we went along. Closer now to Batton Hill camp, we took a detour, back down the Hay River creek bed, to a turn off that would take us out to Lake Caroline. A short but very enjoyable creek bed drive and we came out the other side to a flat ironstone covered plain, with the occasional mound and knoll, and opening out to the vast expanse of a dry lake – Lake Caroline. This truly is a land of changing contrasts, we have now encountered landscapes that are yellow, or red or white, now black, some is sand, some rock, some dirt and bulldust. We have passed through tree lined river banks, rough corrugated dirt sections, dry lakes with knolls, and grassy sections like fields. It really has to be seen to be appreciated.
We had a quiet night this night after our event packed time the previous night, everyone was off to bed early. We rose, completed our usual pack up, and after a short drive arrived at Batton Hill camp. At last the prospect of hot showers, that fuelled a certain part of our desires for cleanliness, for the last couple of days, at least, was to become reality today, it’s the simple things that can make all the difference. Batton Hill, an aboriginal business, catering for the needs of the traveller through the peak season, is a well set up and operated facility, with tribal elder and Aboriginal Council chief, Lindsay Bookie, as traditional owner and custodian of the land and enterprise. We enjoyed a couple of days at the camp, which included our Bush Tucker tour hosted by Lindsay’s daughter and family, an interesting and educational foray into a little known aspect of native Australian flora, and no we didn’t have to eat witchetty grubs, but we did try the wild banana around the campfire that night.
There is always something about being the first to do something that no one else has done before you, and man seems find ways of inventing this to further engage his spirit. I had never heard of Confluence points until about 6 months ago, and still didn’t really understand what we were about to do. With the permission and guidance of Lindsay, we set drove across a very rough track, however the word, ‘track’ should be substituted for ‘paddock’, to an area that had no outstanding features except that of being a flat spinifex laden grassland. But as a trio of GPS holding travellers set off across the paddock, with their noses buried into the screen containing the information of where they were to turn and walk next, I was starting to understand the confluence point project. It must have looked quite amusing to the onlookers though, with these people that have travelled hundreds of miles, charging across a featureless paddock in the middle of the desert, not looking where they were going, zigzagging across the spinifex until they jubilantly found their target, a nondescript spot on the earth. But we did it – first - 23.00.000 - 137.00.00.
A late night return to camp, via Goyder’s pillar at sunset, a smaller more pristine version of Chamber’s Pillar, the usual campfire, chatter about the days events, and the occasional poetry from our travelling bard – Lloyd. We were all up bright and early the next day, however Rob & Helen, Ian & Kate, were up extra early, so as to drive to Alice Springs get some well needed medical attention for Helen’s wrist, and with goodbyes exchanged, they set off at daybreak, and the group was now split. We followed along not long after, following the well graded road out of Batton Hill camp to Jervois and the Plenty Highway. Those of you who know, and at the time of writing, the Plenty Highway, is a highway by name only, and with some quite rough sections and roadworks, I personally was glad to see the turn off to Rubys Gap, via the Cattlewater Pass track.
This was an absolutely fantastic drive, putting all your 4WD skills to the test, with interesting scenery, so good in fact, I’m not going to mention too much about this drive, because the words and even the pictures don’t do it justice, you will just have to go and do it yourself. Needless to say, ensure you plan adequate time to take it all in. It took us 4 hours to travel approximately 60 kilometres. We ended up camping for the evening about 25km in from the Rubys Gap turnoff.
The next day was to be our last with our colleagues from the Mitsubishi club, and the group was to split again. It was discussed and decided that due to the Finke Desert race, the influx of people to Alice Springs, and a few personal issues to deal with that we would head for home down the blacktop. So at smoko, we left Bob & Heather, Lloyd and Reetha as they journeyed onto Rubys Gap, whilst we turned west and headed to Alice Springs. As much as it was somewhat sad, with the realisation that our adventure was about to come to a grinding halt, the fantastic scenery, with the morning sun shining on the hillside’s steep embankments, illuminated all various colours of earthy red hues, I was reminded that this isn’t the end of this trip, just the beginning of the next.
A night in Alice Springs, we went the luxury route and took a room at the bunkhouse in the caravan park. It was luxury, compared to having put the tent up and down. A reunion and see you later dinner out at local Alice Springs pub, the Todd Tavern, with Rob, Helen, Ian and Kate, was a most enjoyable end to our trip, and it was good to see that Helen’s wrist was professionally attended to for it’s journey to recovery.
Early to bed and early to rise was the order of the day for our journey home. We departed Alice Springs for the boring drive down the Stuart Highway, to our overnight accommodation at Glendambo. A long day, but must admit was pleasantly surprised, as there was lots to look at, both environmentally and also the different vehicles and characters heading North, and as it turns out not as long and boring as I had remembered. The next day was not quite as long, and we finished the trip the same way as we started, along Highway One, through Port Wakefield and home. It was good to get away on our adventure, but it was also good to be home.