Simpson Desert – I went around this desert on the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks in 2006 on my bike. The desert requires that you carry your own food, water and fuel and I could not do this on a bike without a support vehicle so I postponed it to another day.
Originally I meant to cross it at the start of my journey in April but the area had 125mm of rain and all the roads were closed so another postponement. Finally, I get to cross this off my list of stupid things to do hahaha.
Before I started, I had to do some research and I am going to answer the questions I was seeking answers to, below.
The vehicle I used was a 2021 Mitsubishi Pajero Sport with 23,000 km on the odometer and it had been serviced at 16,000 km. This vehicle has four modes, 2 wheel drive, 4 wheel drive, 4 wheel drive High Range with Centre Diff Lock and 4 wheel drive Low Range with Centre Diff Lock. I used 2 wheel drive on pavement and 4 wheel drive on gravel and sand. I did try the centre Diff lock modes for short periods but it did not make any difference and they use more fuel so I went back to just 4 wheel drive.
It was standard, no modifications at all except for the Falken AT tyres and only one spare tyre.
I was carrying 35 litres of water and 70 litres of extra diesel in containers plus the tank has a capacity of 68 litres. Total 138 litres of diesel.
The only spare part I carried was an air filter.
I had lots of tinned food, wraps, oats, soy milk, honey, beer, etc enough to last me a couple of weeks.
The vehicle weighed 2460kg (weighed on a weighbridge) before I added the 70 litres of diesel taking the total weight to around 2530kg fully laden including myself. This is very light, most 4×4’s start at this weight and then they add at least another 1000kg of accessories, food, water, fuel, passengers etc.
I carried a ORICOM UHF5500 5 WATT UHF CB Radio, you need this to talk to others on the track to let them know you are coming or there could be a head on collision at the top of a dune. This also allows one of you to find a spot to pull over and wait until you cross, other wise you could find yourself reversing down a dune. The radio must be set to Channel 10.
I also carried a KTI PERSONAL EMERGENCY LOCATOR BEACON PLB SA2GN 406MHZ, this is one of the new digital types, the analogue system has been discontinued so I had to buy a new one.
And I had a 2m sand/dune flag mounted to the roof of the vehicle, this is mandatory and the reason for it is so vehicles can see the flag when on either side of a dune and be warned that there is a vehicle on the other side. When you are at the crest of a dune all you can see is the sky until you go over and the vehicle tilts downwards, the transition is very abrupt.
My tyre pressures were set to 32psi for gravel or pavement and 22psi for sand and I carried a compressor to reinflate them.
I started out from Uluru/Ayres Rock campground and drove to Kulgera Road House on the Stuart Highway where I filled up. From there I turned onto the Finke Road and drove to Lamberts Centre of Australia. The Finke road is gravel and in good condition (80-90kph) and an easy drive but the 11km to Lamberts Centre was heavily corrugated and slow going (15-20kph) but there were beautiful fields of wildflowers all around. Back onto the Finke Road until you get to Finke where you turn onto the Mount Dare road that is also gravel and in good condition. The condition of these roads vary and I was lucky to be on them soon after they had been graded.
Mount Dare Hotel is remote and there is no phone or internet but they do have very expensive fuel ($2.27/litre diesel) I filled up and spent the night there in a cabin. You can also camp and they serve meals and alcohol but you can not buy supplies. This is where you get final advice on the condition of the track/desert and whether to proceed or not, talk to the owners, they are very helpful. Based on their advice I decided to follow the Rig Road which ends at the Birdsville Track and then go South to the Mungerannie Hotel. The reasons being that it is the more scenic route and also if I went via Birdsville which is in Queensland I would have to quarantine for 2 weeks as the Simpson Desert is in South Australia which is on a Queensland Covid Blacklist. The Rig Road is the longer route so make sure you have enough fuel. You have to buy a Desert Parks Pass here for $178, you can also buy this pass online and at Oodnadatta, it comes with a fairly thick book and a map and is valid for one year. The National Parks advice is to travel in a convoy of at least two vehicles and to not tow a Camper trailer. You are also advised to make the crossing from West to East as the slope on the Western side of the dunes is not as steep as the Eastern side, due to the prevailing winds.
I had a Hema Simpson Desert Map which I bought earlier this year for planning purposes and also several digital maps on my phone, ExplorOZ, Here Maps, MapsMe and Google Maps. ExplorOZ which cost $110 has 2.5GB of detailed Hi Resolution off road maps of Australia and the maps are stored on your phone. I also had two hand held GPS units from Garmin and Magellan both with their own sets of maps hahaha slight overkill but maps are one of my hobbies.
For actual Navigation while driving I used Google Maps connected to the vehicle using Android Auto. You have to mark waypoints on Google Maps and create a route before you start. Google maps got confused sometimes, when this happened it was quite obvious and I used ExplorOZ which I had running in parallel on my phone to make sure I was not going around in circles. Android Auto and ExplorOZ are not compatible and ExplorOZ which has the better off road maps is not as good as Google Maps for normal Navigation or creating routes. I use the Garmin GPS (Montana 650t) to save my Tracks and view them on Garmin Basecamp.
I started out from Mount Dare at 0805 and drove towards Dalhousie Springs where the National Park has a campground with Toilets and Showers. I stopped to take photos and if there is a spring it must be hiding, next stop was Alka Seltzer Bore which is where I let my tyre pressures down to 22psi and attached my sand dune flag. The dunes started just before this stop. Next stop was Purni Bore which is also a campground with Toilets after this you have to dig a hole in the ground to do your business.
I followed the French Line and at some point from the top of a dune I saw two vehicles coming the other way, they saw me as well and pulled over and waited and then asked me over the radio if there was anyone behind me expecting me to be part of a convoy. I turned South at the Rig road turnoff, there is a sign, if the track diverges and there is no sign check your map before you decide which direction to follow or you might get bogged as I did later on hahaha. The reason you follow a corrugated and/or sandy track even though the terrain beside the track looks smoother is because the track has been compacted by previous vehicles and is a known quantity. What looks quite innocent off the track on the top could conceal very soft sand or mud if you are near a Salt lake. I learnt this the hard way in 2006 when I was riding my bike on the Birdsville track, got bogged in mud and was lucky that I only had to wait about 20 min before a 4×4 came along and pulled me out, that was the only vehicle I saw all that day.
When travelling West to East you will be crossing one dune after another with undulations between them but when you turn South you will be travelling mostly between the dunes and the road is corrugated. I think I must have encountered every kind of off road terrain on this trip. When driving over the dunes West to East speed is 15-20 kph and when driving alongside and between the dunes North to South speed is 30-40 kph. A bit later on I saw another vehicle coming the other way and he stopped as well. This guy was with his girlfriend and he was towing a Camper trailer and he was travelling East to West which means he would be driving up the steep side of the dunes. We stopped to have a chat and he did have some trouble getting up the steep side of the dunes with his trailer but said he had done it a few times before and that I would not have any trouble and he was low on fuel. Quite frankly I am amazed he made it up those dunes with his trailer because not only are the steep sides steep they are also full of huge pot holes or more like ditches which have been dug by previous vehicles getting bogged and spinning their wheels. Also when you get to the top of a dune the track does not carry straight on, there is quite often an abrupt turn to the right and then to the left. So you need to power up the dune and then lift off right at the peak when all you can see is the sky and almost stop or sometimes stop completely until you tip forward and down and can see which way to turn or go straight. This was the scariest part of driving and I was always a little apprehensive every time I got to the top of a dune. The guy also said he had been announcing himself on his radio regularly without getting a response so I checked my radio and it was off, dead battery, I think the battery indicator is not accurate. So after I plugged it into the charger I made a habit of announcing my self every five minutes “Heading East on the Rig Road, Heading East on the Rig Road”. The maximum range of these UHF radios is 5km but probably 2km would be more realistic, therefore anyone within this distance would hear you and be on the lookout. After this I did not encounter a single vehicle for the rest of the trip hahaha. At some point the top half of my sand flag fell off. At the point where they screw together there is an O ring therefore the two halves can not be tightened properly. What I should have done was removed the O ring and tightened them with a pair of vice grips.
Driving in these conditions requires extreme concentration but this also means you do not get bored and strangely in my case tired. Most people stop after about six hours but I was feeling good so I decided to carry on and as I got closer to the Lone Gum Tree even though the sun had just set I kept going until I reached it at 1810 after driving 310km in 10:05 hours. The last half an hour seemed to take forever hahaha. Two Coopers XPA later I was out like a light sleeping in the front seat. Before I went to sleep I sat my camera on the roof and took a couple of long exposure photos, there is no light pollution here at all and the stars have to be seen to be believed. In the morning when I went to put the cans in a garbage bag one of them was missing?
After a cold night I woke and got my drone out and filmed the Sunrise at The Lone Gum Tree. Nobody knows the origin of this tree but it it is now an icon and is protected by the National Parks. This stop was one of the highlights of my trip around Australia.
From here to the Birdsville Track and then on to Mungerannie hotel was more interesting, the track was very bad in some places and hardly visible. There are also a few Salt Lakes to go around and some big dunes. I saw two dingoes and a dead camel but I did not see a single bird on the whole trip. Approaching a Salt Lake I saw tracks going across it and followed them passing another track going off to my right, once I got across the Lake I was not sure which way to go and slowed down and went up a small dune quite slowly and near the top got bogged. It only took me a minute to realise that I was not on the track and so I reversed down the dune and turned around and took the track going to the right which was the right one. One stop to empty 2 x 20 litre diesel containers into the tank. There was a section of road just before crossing the Warburton river that was exceptionally bad with continuous deep potholes for several kilometres. Once I reached the Birdsville Track which is not a track anymore but a gravel highway I could do 100kph and arrived at 1550 after driving 360km in 8:40 hrs, the last 108km was on the Birdsville track.
Distance – Mount Dare to Mungerannie via the Rig Road and Birdsville Track – 670km
Time – 2 days with one night in the Desert
Water Used – 5 litres
Beer – 2 x 375 ml cans
Food – 2 x tins of Soup and a few Peanut Butter wraps
Diesel – 73 litres (9.16 km/litre — 10.92 litres/100km — 25.87 Imperial MPG — 21.55 US MPG)
The biggest surprise was how little fuel I used which I attribute to light weight and an efficient engine.