The Simpson Desert
The plan was to leave Birdsville early so breakfast was taken just before dawn and those who swagged it overnight packed their gear up. A short ride across the road to the fuel/souvenir outlet revealed we had some time to kill before it opened. The best unmade plans…… Fortunately the staff turned up to work a bit early and opened up for us.
The delay encouraged shopping and topping up on nut bars, beef jerky and other on trail delicacies decided by individual preference. Eventually we were ready to leave and headed west. It was a bit surreal heading towards the Simpson Desert. We were just riding along a flat road and then all of a sudden there’s a large, red, steep sand dune right in front of you with a deeply rutted twin track invitation to take it on. There was certainly no gentle introduction to it from this side. It was bigger than the practice dune from yesterday. I sat back and watched a few others go over it and then it was my turn.
I hit it in third, bumped it to second two thirds of the way up and lurched towards the crest. I got some unexpected traction near the top which launched me to the right, off the track, crashing through a bush and over a large drop off on the other side. Fortunately the front didn’t dig in and throw me over the handlebars. I stayed upright, nothing to see here! I gingerly made it back onto the downward track and almost paddled down the other side. A pretty awful start, very nearly an ugly off, but I survived.
Then on my right was Big Red, the biggest sand dune in Australia. It wasn’t nearly as big as the red dunes I’ve seen near Dead Vlei in Namibia but I didn’t have to ride up those! To be fair you don’t have to ride up Big Red either, the track across the Simpson makes a left turn to the next dune bypassing it. But…. you can’t really just ride past it can you?
We stopped at the foot of Big Red, there were three or so different ways up it and a few of our crew had a crack, mostly successful. I eventually pushed my last dune effort aside and turned on the GoPro for posterity. It was going to be glorious or a blooper and it didn’t really matter too much which.
Glory it was! I was clearly happy and a photo at the top was completely appropriate.
some of us struggled a bit while others had a few goes and made it look easy. I was happy with one and saving my energy for whatever was to come. With that out of our system it was time to start heading west.
With the biggest dune conquered I felt it just had to get easier. How wrong was I! I had been told flat clay pans between the dunes and it’s certainly what it looked like between Big Red and the next dune, but the dune was bigger than I expected.
You can see how it dwarfs the truck in the distance. On this clay pan we met an Adventure Rider who was in the very early stages of an unassisted ride around the world on a DR-650. His DR was packed full of stuff including his guitar and he may have had the kitchen sink in there somewhere too. He had 50-50 tyres on the bike. The crew tried to give him some advice and suggested he might like to tag along with us for a while. He didn’t make it over the second dune and last we knew he’d decided to take a different route around the world. A smart decision in that case.
One of our own riders who knew he brought with him limited off road skills also failed to get up and over the second dune after a number of attempts. Our lead rider who had handed over his bike to replace one that had blown up yesterday then had a bike to ride. Our peer decided a truck tour over the dunes was more suited to him for now.
This all took some time and the pattern for the rest of the day became riding for 20-30 minutes resting and waiting for the truck to crest the last dune we crossed. Somewhere in there we came across this sign
Because of recent flooding in the Simpson Desert there was a 60km detour north to follow after one of the dunes. This rocky and sandy track gave us some respite from the dunes and the scenery was beautiful.
However progress was delayed by mechanical difficulties with a bike. At that point three of us were ahead of the group and we came across a group of fundraisers for Youngcare and support personnel who were walking across the desert. Their support team and equipment was pretty impressive and included a helicopter!
We stayed with them for some time, they were happy to share some food and drinks with us and tell us more about their trek and their cause. Some donations were definitely in order. Eventually the rest of our guys and the truck turned up and we were on our way.
Over the next dune we found the water in our path.
Some 4WDrivers nearby pointed out that a crossing could be found about 2km south. It was about 60 metres wide and up to a metre deep. Some rode across, some rode on the truck while the lead rider got their bikes across without drowning them. It was a wild ride on the truck!
It was getting quite late by then so we tackled a few more dunes then looked for somewhere flat to camp. Some people with a sense of humour had camped there before us.
After a cool night breakfast before dawn was on again. I was getting used to bacon, egg, sausage and baked beans by now. Many of us were feeling the results of the effort put into yesterday’s riding in the sand. My hands and forearms were aching and grip strength somewhat reduced. My fingers felt fat and a bit useless. I needed to find a technique to take the pressure off a bit. What ever I was doing was working OK though, I managed to be the second last person in the group to fall off yesterday and had only gone over twice.
I have to admit I looked at the first dune for today with some trepidation and I don’t think I was the only one. I was all over the place riding over the first half dozen or so and it wasn’t very pretty at all. Confidence plummeted but fortunately I was able to loudly counsel myself in my helmet and get into the right frame of mind.
It was tough going until I warmed up. Usually things went wrong near the tops of the dunes where the sand was deep, soft and involved a sharp right, then left, then right turn to negotiate the top and head down the back. But I was getting into a rhythm and the panic at each dune was soon gone.
Here I am following Eric through some of the easier stuff.
The dunes were getting a little smaller but the riding was getting more difficult. We made our way to the end of the QAA Line to the K1 Line.
Then visited Poeppel Corner (the corner of QLD, NT and SA) and the track in there was a little nasty sandy thing too!
After that the French Line took us to what the lead rider called “The Mincer” and with good reason. Here the dunes were a little smaller in height however on the western side the down slope and approach to the next dune was all deep sand with huge holes dug by spinning 4WD wheels. It was relentless and provided no opportunity to take a breath and get a run up to the next dune. Did I say it was relentless?
The dunes mess with your head, there’s 1100 of them to cross on the Simpson, it’s best not to think past the one you are approaching. If you don’t approach them with confidence and look ahead you simply don’t make it to the top or smoothly over the other side. The mincer makes it harder again because it messes with your confidence between dunes. The result…(not the DRZ BTW)
Some of the riders we struggling and required regular assistance picking their bikes up. It’s physically draining riding, it gets hot quickly and the more you have to walk on the sand and pick bikes up the more fatigued you get. On this section another rider decided that continuing to ride in pain and highly fatigued was not an acceptable risk. So the blown up bike on the back of the truck was hidden for later recovery and his bike was loaded onto the back.
We were all very happy to find a place to camp that afternoon. The sand was soft because we were in a flat part of the mincer on part of a dune. I believe everyone was a bit shattered that evening.
After another night in the swag we pondered facing more of The Mincer over breakfast. With two riders still opting for the truck we were on our way. I got off to a bad start with two falls in quick succession before I got my act together. I should not have been surprised that this section, for a while, was even harder to ride in than yesterday’s onslaught. I mentioned relentless before didn’t I?
The first part of the day became just about surviving, stopping often to rest and taking photos of signs. There was nothing else out there but sand, bushes and a high potential to fall if you lost focus, confidence or determination.
There was the occasional Dingo and lots of dingo tracks along the route.
Eventually the dunes spaced back out more and surprisingly got a little bigger for a while. There were more corners close to the dunes to prevent a decent run up and tricky turns across the face of the dunes to negotiate rather than going straight up them but after the couple of days of practice we had had it actually wasn’t too bad.
Towards the end of the sand we left the Munga-Thirri National Park and entered the Witjira National Park.
We were elated to get out of the dunes onto the road to Dalhousie Springs. A thermal spring in the middle of nowhere with toilets, cold showers (if you didn’t want to jump into the springs) and a sense of civilisation. After a bunch of days without showering I walked into the warm water and soaked for quite some time. There are also little fish in the springs that feed on your skin which was initially uncomfortable and irritating but worth enduring for a good warm bath without soap.
We were warned by volunteers not to leave anything, particularly boots, lying around or dingoes would likely steal them. I certainly slept well that night even with the swag stuffed with riding gear.
Here I am at Dalhousie Springs, for all intent and purposes the Simpson was done and sanded (dusted doesn’t quite describe it) and I only recall falling off about 8 times in all.
I’m not sure if I ever want to see it again but as time passes the thought of crossing it in the other direction does have some fascination. The DRZ400 was faultless!
Off to Finke tomorrow, hopefully we’ll get to meet Toby Price.