Cape York via Simpson Desert 13 June 2015 – Day 12

Sunday, Jun 14, 2015 at 21:19

Peter Beard (WA)

The showers are hot and the beers are cold at Birdsville. You might not believe this but Birdsville is heaven. Another long day, culminating in a hair-raising ascent of Big Red and, like everyone that has crossed the Simpson Desert from west to east says, what a way to finish the trip.

There was a lot of rain last night, we woke in darkness to a steady patter on the roof of the tent and when we got up this morning there was a nice bulge of water caught on the awning roof. Makes for fun packing when a deluge threatens! We breakfasted to a symphony of howls and yips from a dingo pack close by, we didn't see them but their eerie "talk" was both interesting and disturbing. Hope they don't come too close.

We were on the track just after 8:00, keen to tackle the QAA Line and hopefully make it to Birdsville. We passed a couple of campsites not far from the corner, in various states of repacking - some with tents still up, others just about to hit the road. It turned into quite a procession throughout the day, lots of cars heading east to (relative) civilisation.

Patchy rain continued all morning, one particularly heavy rain cloud included lightning for good measure. The wet did not impede our progress, it nicely damped down the sand and gave us a couple of mud holes to get the car dirty. The track from the corner is the same lumpy grind of speed humps and dunes for about the first 20km, second gear low range to limit damage to the track, car and cargo. Across the salt lakes we reached the eye-watering speed of 40km/h for a lovely, short, smooth stretch. In other stretches it is slow going in first gear over the sharp white rocky outcrops that dot the track. Another interesting phenomenon is gypcrete, smoothish grey sections where gypsum and water have mixed with the dirt to cement itself to the desert floor.

After the 20km mark the sand dunes become further apart and steeper, the valleys between the dunes telling the story of where water flows in this arid landscape. Those that receive water have trees, shrubs, flowers and grass. Those that don't have spinifex, and in other very dry valleys even the spinifex can't survive so it is just sand and rocks. In one lush valley an owl sat in a tree at the top of the dune watching with interest all the cars working their way up and then down the hill.

It was about here we came across a party of two vehicles heading west. One was a Mitsubishi Triton that looked pretty well set up for the trip, the other was a Commodore. Yes a Commodore. OK it was an all-wheel drive Adventra, but with standard tyres, no additional ground clearance and no low range option. The driver said they planned to do the French Line because it was shorter, but we advised him to take the WAA line instead. Hope he makes it, too nice a car to abandon in the desert but one we suspect is not up to the task of making the grinding crossing.

Talking of grinding, something must be said about the driving habits of some travellers. The best way to drive, and the way to cause least damage, is to let down the tyres of the car to less than 20 psi (we had the Landcruiser at 18 all round), engage low range and gently chug up and over the dunes in second or even third gear. Keeping tyres hard, staying in high range and racing up the dune with the car bouncing and big rooster tails coming off the tyres is not the way to do it. We came across one bunch of cars that got stuck several times halfway up a dune and had to be dragged over by the lead car, causing a traffic jam at the bottom for other travellers and chewing the track to bits. When we approached exactly the same spot using low range second gear, the Landcuriser easily cleared the hill, leaving clear tread marks and no dust. People that attack these dunes will find out sooner or later that they bite back.

The first landmark indicating the Simpson Desert crossing is almost complete is Eyre Creek. The track drops down a couple of metres into a wide, grey, sandy river bed – beautiful white gums grow in the stream path, presumably able to survive the water flow when it happens. Or perhaps the water flow happens so rarely that they have time to grow to such height, and get washed away when the creek finally runs?

The final challenge of the day is Big Red, a monster of a sand dune with legendary status. To get over the top Big Red presented four options. The far right track, a steep climb with a left turn at the top to get over, being the easier (according to advice on the UHF radio from the bunch of cars making attempts from the base), and the far left, a straight, steep climb to a high ridge, being the hardest. We let the tyres down to 12 psi all round and tackled the “easy track”, about all that our resolve could handle. The Landcruiser handled it beautifully, ending up once again in low range second gear as we approached the top. A great feeling, a great adrenaline rush to finish the day.

A gentle drive in to Birdsville for that lovely hot shower and cold beer. Once again, Birdsville is heaven.


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