In June/July 2007 I took part in one of Paddy McHugh's little strolls across the Simpson Desert. I signed up because I wanted to go for a bushwalk in the desert, but I could not see a way of organising one. Paddy's trips are supported walks, and therefore physically and mentally easier than a traditional self-sufficient bush walk. As it turned out, the reality of getting up every morning in dust and sand, walking 25 km through dust and sand, going to sleep in dust and sand, all without being able to wash for weeks on end was quite hard enough. We took the French Line from Dalhousie Springs to Big Red (just shy of Birdsville). All up about 400km and almost 3 weeks of walking. Most days we walked 25km, on a few "rest" days we only walked 15km, and I had one 35km day.
The Simpson Desert is probably Australia's best known desert because it is driest of the Australian deserts (see the Bureau of Meteorology). There are many other Australian Deserts, most of which are unknown to the average Australian (eg Strezlecki's Desert). The Simpson also has the reputation of being the most isolated, which means ironically it is relatively busy, because that same reputation attracts visitors :-)
There are no real roads across the Simpson, and the original Aboriginal wells have either been destroyed or covered by sand. The French Line is one of the few 4WD routes across the Simpson. It was made by French geologists in 1963, looking for oil and gas. It follows a single compass line the whole way (well, there is a minor change of direction somewhere between Purnee Bore and Poeppel Corner, probably when they checked their compass, but it is so slight as to be unnoticeable). After 250km it reaches Poeppel corner, jogs north for 20km, and then becomes the QAA line for the 150km straight run in to Birdsville.
In June Sydney had finally been having heavy rain after years of drought. I was a bit tired of the rain and was looking forward to some dry desert, and was completely shocked to find it raining in Alice Springs as I got off the plane. I had been expecting the cold - it being winter - but not the wet. There was concern that the rain would delay the trip while we waited for various "dry" lakes to become dry again, but it turned out the rain had not extended south into the Simpson. Being winter, the daily temperature in the desert was typically -4 to 20. As it was we had a heat wave and several days touched 30.
From Alice Springs we drove to Mt Dare, the last post for fuel, food and beer. The "hotel" is a tin shed that doubles as pub, restaurant, art gallery, and the owner's living room (complete with dogs and babies). The whole complex (if I can call it that) is surrounded by an earthen berm that makes it feel like something out of Mad Max. However, the food was good and the people friendly and knowledgable. Mt Dare was our last shower until Purnee Bore four days later.
Next morning we drove from Mt Dare to the mound springs of Dalhousie Springs. These natural springs mark the edge of the Great Artesian basin, where the water from the Great Dividing Range finally resurfaces after 2,000 km and 2 million years. The pools are pleasantly warm, complete with schools of nibbling fish. The Springs are surrounded by a stony desert, covered by smallish (5cm) rocks (quartzite?) coated with desert varnish. That afternoon we walked 10km as a warm-up. The following dawn was freezing, with a cold wind blowing hard from the South. I doubt it was much above 6C, and the wind chill made it much lower. In fact I developed an ear ache in my right ear after several days of cold southerly winds - we were walking due East the whole time, and the Southerly wind blew consistently into my right ear. We walked a full day that day, crossing a dry lake known as the Spring Creek delta. We had a cold windy camp at Lowther Creek, where I found some beautiful gypsum, and was attacked by some salt-bush inhabiting flies at midnight. I had put my swag in the lee of a salt-bush to get out of the wind, but obviously the flies had the same idea. The flies in the Simpson were terrible, but they usually disappeared at sundown. These bastards were different.
The next day we reached the Simpson Desert and our first sand dunes, quite low, probably only 5m high. The track over the top of the dunes was still stabilised by clay bulldozed up from the swales, although we did not realise that at the time. The dunes were therefore very easy to walk over (at least while on the track, I had not yet started to walk much off-track), so we started to become quite cocky. A few days later we reached Purnee Bore, which is an artificial wetland created when one of the experimental drill holes lost its cap. The bore flow is now restricted so as to preserve the artesian flow to the mound springs, but there is still plenty of water for a huge number of birds, camels, and even feral donkeys.
After several days of walking we settled into a daily routine. Those who were habitually early risers, and those with thin sleeping bags, rose before 5am to relight the fire. Most others only braved the subzero temperatures at about 6:30, for a breakfast of toasted damper, muesli, bubble and squeak etc. The sun itself did not rise until after 7am. We split the day's walk into 3 sessions, typically 11km, 8km, and 6km. Most of us enjoyed the first session the most - cool temperatures, beautiful light, and lack of fatigue. The last session was also easy because it was short and we knew it was the last. The middle session was the one that often seemed to degenerate into a hard slog through the sand.
I usually would spend at least one session off the track, walking out in an arc 1 to 2km North of the French Line. Navigation was extremely easy because of the sparse vegetation and the consistent bearing of the track and the dunes. If I ever became nervous of my location I could always just turn right 90 degrees and follow a dune ridge to the track. The clear terrain also made it easy to estimate distance by the time we had been walking - we usually averaged 5.25 kph. Planning the day's walk was very different to planning an ordinary bushwalk. In the desert there is no water to be had, you have to carry it all with you. So there is no point looking at the map for a creek at which to have lunch or to spend the night. Planning just means deciding how many kilometres you are going to walk, estimating your ground speed, and therefore calculating your arrival time almost to the minute.
Before the trip I was worried that I would be bored on the walk, after all I would be walking for almost three weeks through the same kind of country. Many people say that desert is "all the same," you can drive at high speed for thousands of kilometres without noticing much difference. I'd spent time in deserts before and had learnt that while the big picture might not change much, the little things are always changing. So I spent some time before the trip studying animal tracks and plants - most of my photos are of "little things." The desert changed every day - as we moved into drier regions many plant species disappeared, and those that remained looked dead and crisp as if a dragon had breathed over the land. The distribution of animal species also changed - camels were always present, donkeys only within a day of Purnee Bore, kangaroos were quite rare, emus only near water, hopping mice more common on sand, dingoes more common near water and humans, lizards and insects everywhere. I saw countless beetles and grasshoppers, and the fishing-line webs of "angler spiders" glowing like cotton bolls in the morning light. Heading into the rising sun the dried flowers of pussy tails glinted like sparks on the dunes.
The angler spiders were interesting. I made the name up because I don't know what they are called. They spin a long thread with a sticky ball on the end, similar to the net of a net-casting spider. I assume that they let the sticky ball out downwind on a line and attempt to snare insects.
The dunes are generally dominated by cane grass, and the swales (the valleys between the dunes) by spinifex, although there are plenty of other species. Almost all the cane grass we saw was grey and dead after five years of drought, although presumably the roots were alive but dormant, waiting for rain. The spinifex was also generally brown, but much of it had seeded. There were acacia shrubs, but no trees, in the most arid zone. Gidgees and stinking wattles disappeared after Purnee Bore, and then re-appeared when we entered the salt lake country near Poeppel Corner. They grow in the deeper swales, especially long the borders of the lakes.
Three days after Purnee Bore we reached the junction with the Rig Road. The Rig Road heads South and then East, running roughly parallel to the French Line but about 100km further south. From this point on we had no clay on the dunes, just sand and bulldust. At this time we were feeling quite confident, believing that we were obviously strong enough to deal with the walking, but the sand really knocked the stuffing out of us and we had to have a half-rest day.
The start of the sand marked the beginning of the heart of the walk - twelve days in a dead straight line across the sand, through the driest part of the desert. One by one the plants disappeared, and those that were left were grey, cracked and brittle. Time was not measured in hours or kilometres, but in days. Occasionally we would pass through a region which had received some rain in January, passing through flowers and seeds left over from the rain. We only saw one pool of natural water in 16 days, although the desert was often pock-marked by what we called "designer rain" - enough rain to pattern the surface but not enough for a good feed. Adelaide was being soaked while we were in the Simpson, so we were passed by a cold fronts coming through from the West. The fronts passed over as threatening bands of black-grey virga, causing us to put up our tents one night, but all we received was a few spatters and some spectacular sunsets.
After the rain we slowly inched across the map into salt lake country near Poeppel corner. There is obviously more ground water here because the gidgee trees (shrubs really) returned, especially on the lake borders. Even though I knew we the lakes were near I still thought that the first one I saw was a mirage, mirages being common even on the coldest days. A mirage at the end of a salt lake looked like the opening of a bay out into the sea. The "salt" lakes are actually mostly muddy gypsum (Calcium Sulphate), not common salt (Sodium Chloride). They are usually dazzlingly white, but the February rains had brought the mud up. I suspect that the gypsum slowly recrystallises on top of the mud. The surface of a lake is lumpy, generally covered with fine white crystals, although occasionally pinkish plates of compressed gypusm crystals poke up like shattered glass.
Poeppel corner marks the corner of three states (okay, two states and territory) - Northern Territory, Queensland, and South Australia. As a result it is an identifiable spot in another wise blank part of the map and so has always attracted travellers. The reality of Poeppel corner is being an unremarkable spot on the edge of a dry lake. By this stage we were running low on water so Paddy took one of the vehicles into Birdsville for more water, returning late that night.
From Poeppel we walked north for about 20km along a lake. Rob and I decided to save a few kilometres by taking a direct line angling across the lake, but with a minor sand storm blowing it became a minor epic. Lean in to the wind, crunch, crunch, crunch, don't stop for fear you might start sinking. One of the most memorable sections of the trip.
The other side of the lake was the probably the driest spot on the whole walk. It was the edge of a large lake to there was an extensive gidgee "forest," but I doubt it had seen any rain for years. Very few leaves, and those that were there were dark grey. The whole forest looked like it was covered with fine grey dust. Even the dust on the ground looked like it was covered with dust. And over all of it a blinding glare.
That afternoon we had a huge wash festival with our new Birdsville water, our first chance since Purnee Bore two weeks ago. Socks and underwear hung from the gidgee, and everyone managed to wash strategic regions from a hand basin. On average we each used 4 litres of water per day, including drinking, cooking and (non-) washing.
The dunes gradually became higher and further apart as walked East. They also slowly became paler as the proportion of sand increased. We crossed the Vermin Proof Fence somewhere along the QAA line. This fence was dug two metres deep - by hand - into the ground for thousands of kilometres, stare at it and be amazed. About four more days walking brought us to Eyre Creek, the first permanent water we had seen since Purnee Bore, and the first "natural" water since a muddy puddle a day East of the bore. Eyre Creek is a flood channel that brings water down from the Cloncurry district, and then, in a good year, travels through braids into Lake Eyre. Eyre Creek was full due to the northern rains of the preceding months. With another party member I walked 35km that day to reach the Creek well after dark. We could not see the first pools, but the smell of water and wet vegetation as we crested the last dune was overpowering.
The next morning we spent time watching the huge numbers of birds along the water course. However, my strongest memory from that morning is a 4WD party that drove up to the creek, reversed around so that a woman could lean out the window to video tape the creek, and then roared off again, loud music blaring all the time. Their noise had scattered the birds before their vehicle even reached the creek. I really wonder what they saw of the desert, as I did of the others I saw being bounced around in their metal boxes.
After Eyre Creek we only had a day and a half to Big Red, the sand dune that traditionally marks the edge of the desert. It is arguably the tallest at around 40m, and also marks the beginning of the slightly civilised country leading into Birdsville. Birdsville itself was weird, an anticlimax as we had been warned. Swamped by a horde of grey nomads (although none of us were that young either), the iconic Birdsville Hotel served as a photo back drop to yet another group of adventurers every half hour. I am sure that the locals become very blase about the excited tourists who feel that they have just finished an epic trip to the dark side of the moon. However, the showers in the camp ground were wonderful, as were the pelicans in the flooded Diamantina.
We never felt that we walked through an isolated wilderness - we were on a road of sorts and we saw vehicle parties every day. We did not carry our own gear and we had a lot of back up. However, it still was a major desert, with a tremendous grandeur and sense of space if you walked off the track. When people ask me what did I see, it is the space that I think of most - cresting a dune and looking along the face north and south as far as the eye can see, the sand heaping up like a huge roller in the Southern Ocean.
The other part of the story is the relentless grind of walking 25 km, 25 fast kilometres every day for weeks on end. Any blister or sore tendon became a major problem. On a normal bushwalk of three or four days you can just tough it out, but a blister in the middle of the desert is like a wobble in the knees of a weight-lifter. It causes a limp, which throws your knee out, which then starts to hurt, and then your hip, and then your back. I believe that I can better understand the early white explorers, or Napoleon's army as they marched from Berlin to Moscow - I now know what it means to walk hundreds of kilometres. That in itself is a gut-knowledge that I value.
Birds, lizards, dunnarts, hopping mice and weavils were the most common animals. Even ants were rare - I had to search to find them. The hopping mice and dunnarts were only visible as tracks in the fine sand. Hawks and other raptors are very obvious because the trees that they perch on are low and the human visitors rare. It is very easy to get quite stunning pictures of them. An indication of the low biomass of the area is the lack of dead insects on the vehicle's windshield. On a drive through "ordinary" country the windshield quickly becomes covered with flecks and smears of butterflies and grasshoppers. Not so in the Simpson, or indeed for nearly a thousand kilometres after we left Birdsville.
I feel I know the Simpson know, or rather, have been introduced. Only by walking where the 4WDs don't go can you really get to know a place.
Any landscape photos are always horizontal and sky dominated - see Gallipoli or Breaker Morant.
Text and Images Copyright Geoffrey Phipps 2007-2014. Unauthorised copying or reuse prohibited.