'The desert' is a term used loosely to describe the remote arid far west of Queensland and beyond to the centre of the Australian continent. For many people, it conjures up an image of sand and dunes rather than stony treeless emptiness. The area that includes Diamantina Shire and northern South Australia has three types of landscape: what is called the 'hard' country, made up of tablelands and downs; the sandy dune fields of the Simpson, Strzelecki and Tirari deserts (the Tirari lies between the Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve† and Lake Eyre National Park in SA); and the channels and ephemeral lakes of the major river systems.
The Simpson Desert covers 176,500 square kilometres – the size of Cambodia or Uruguay – and most of this is in southeastern Northern Territory. The Simpson's 1100 parallel dunes run southeast to northwest, the prevailing wind direction when they were formed 80,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era. They are maintained by the action of wind today, and don't migrate: they are not 'live'. They are at least partly vegetated, and may even carry tallish shrubs or low trees, making them a resilient landform. The crests are often bare and windswept, while the slopes are secured by spinifex and sandhill canegrass. The dunes are roughly a kilometre apart, and the in-between areas are either gibber plains, clay pans or shrubland of acacia or grevillia. Some dunes stretch for 250 kilometres, which is mind-boggling.
A rough track leads west from Birdsville: it is almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. There can be little doubt this is taking remoteness to a new level.
The track is called the QAA Line; but no one seems to know why. A number of 'lines' were constructed in the second half of the 20th century as oil and gas companies sent seismic surveyors into the desert to explore the possibilities. The French Line is fairly self-explanatory – it was constructed by Compagnie Générale de Géophysique – but WAA (which is in South Australia) and QAA defeat the most obvious people I've consulted, such as national park rangers, visitor centre information providers and even our pilot, Ollie. I am, fairly predictably, determined to find the answer, but it may take a while.
I lost count of the number of times we said to each other, 'Is that Big Red?' as we got 30 kilometres or so down the track. Eventually, it was (37 km from Birdsville). The boundary of Queensland's Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) National Park is another 38 kilometres further on, and the border with Northern Territory 71 km beyond that. Once you're over Big Red, the track is straight and single-minded.
The National Park, established in 1967, is closed from 1 December until 15 March, when temperatures are considered too extreme (40-50˚C). There are no toilets, camping areas or bushwalking tracks. You are advised to cross the Desert with at least one other vehicle and to carry a satellite phone. As you would expect in Australia, where information about survival in hostile environments is hugely experience-based and liberally shared, there was ample warning about travelling any further without essential equipment and provisions.
I should perhaps explain here that I did not position the bones, nor have I enhanced the colour of the sand.
The car sailed up and down easily, and we were chuffed and rather excited to be 'doing' the QAA. We'd been told that people often get cocky and get stuck on the second, but we sailed up and over the next dune, too. The third took three attempts, however, bringing us back to reality. After that, we were determined to carry on. Suddenly Eyre Creek didn't seem such a crazy idea.
I've noticed that I only took one photograph before we reached Eyre Creek, which suggests that it took a while for my slight anxiety about the remoteness of this adventure to subside. The car was certainly coping with the dunes, but our destination was beyond the range of our two-way radio. In addition, you have to take a run up and over a dune at a speed that reduces the risk of being slowed and bogged in the sand. You cannot see if anything is approaching up the other side until you've overtopped the crest. It is the law in South Australia but not in Queensland that your car must be fitted with a sand dune flag, which is tall and brightly coloured. In the absence of such, we had to use the horn to herald our approach, which wasn't relaxing.
This is typical of the between-dune vegetation.
We arrived at Eyre Creek, and thought we'd have lunch in the middle of the furthest-west channel, at the furthest west point we've been, travelling from the east coast that is. It was dry, I hasten to add. The pale grey, almost white soil of the creek beds contrasted with the vibrant orange sand.
I could hardly believe what happened next. My friend decided we needed to park in the shade of the creek bed rather than at the side of the track. We came to a sudden halt in deep sand. I was not happy: and certainly not as relaxed as a few moments earlier when our mission had been accomplished. We hadn't seen a car or another living thing since the far side of Big Red. It was very warm. We started taking heavy items out of the car and retrieving the MaxTrax from the box on top. Then there was digging to be done. Lunch was out of the question until we had freed ourselves. You can see on the right of this picture where we got bogged and I had a sense-of-humour failure.
As we packed up, a lone vehicle passed by, heading west. We turned back towards Birdsville. We counted the dunes on the way back, and stopped to photograph vegetation and long vistas.
Big Red got bigger as we got nearer. At its highest point, you have three options: the steepest, shortest and most daunting; a middling route; and a more gradual and winding, slightly wussy way. Or so it appeared from the bottom. But there was a sting in the tail on the crest – a bend. We came to a halt in deep sand as we had to turn sharply almost at the top. At least we were bogged this time with stunning views all around us. The sand was dry and easier to dig away from our almost-disappeared wheels and underside than at Eyre Creek. I definitely don't take pictures at stressful moments, I've realised.
It had been an adventurous, challenging, exciting, wildly different day, and unquestionably the best of the trip so far. That evening in the Birdsville Hotel bar, we chatted to a man who didn't seem impressed by our 20-dune foray into the Simpson. I'm sure he said he'd driven a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender to Poeppel Corner** and back in a day – 160 kilometres each way. And that's with a manual gearbox; and no terrain response nor a whole host of stability systems. But nothing could detract from our sense of adventure having been realised. I will never forget either the flight over the Channel Country or venturing into the Simpson Desert, and each will be a hard act to follow.
I've thought a lot more about remoteness during and since this Outback trip. Last year, creeping out of Tibooburra at dawn (see Outback: Tibooburra to Quilpie, July 2013), the sense of aloneness was perplexing. Usually, a landscape devoid of anything much at all, and certainly help-less, is exciting and invigorating. In difficult terrain or with bad weather threatening, it can quickly be transformed into a more daunting prospect. I can well understand, however, how people get hooked, and embark on more and more outlandish capers.
Several times I have done what I thought at the time was really remote: Death Valley in California; the Negev in southern Israel; the highlands of northwest Scotland; the southern Mani peninsula in Greece; the Bardenas Reales in Navarra, Spain. Few of these combined difficult terrain with uncomfortable weather, a problem of some sort and an absence of emergency services. (On reflection, Death Valley came close: a 2-3-hour journey in a car with no breaks and high-40s heat!)
How far will you step outside your comfort zone for the anticipation of adventure, a frisson of fear, and a post-thrill endorphin rush?
† South Australia has regional reserves and conservation parks as well as national parks
** where Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet
** where Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet