Tales of a beautiful yet unforgiving desert

21st September, 2016Posted in: From the Tracks, Latest, The Trip

Tales of a beautiful yet unforgiving desert

Departing Alice Springs on the 13th of September, the trip had started with an unexpected turn. The convoy of Icons, along with their support crew, were met with heavy rains along the Ghan Railway making for a challenging adventure to Mt. Dare. To read the tales of the first two days checkout ‘An Unexpected Beginning‘.

From Mt. Dare, we took an easy 80km drive down the road to Dalhousie Springs. The layover day allowed the team to soak in the beautiful natural springs curiously located on the edge of the desert, while the Icons could receive a quick once over after battling some wet conditions.

Saturday 16th September

Come the morning of the 16th, the sun was shining, the Simpson was open and drivers were keen for the 3 day crossing, west to east, into Birdsville.

ARB Icons 40 series small dune

Driving up and over the first of the Simpson dunes is more a symbolic achievement than a challenge. From the west, the dunes are at their smallest (only 3 – 4 metres high), undulating, as they seamlessly deliver you from one to another.

The day was organised to take in the Purni Bore Wetlands and to detour south onto the WAA Line then back up the Rig Road to camp at Colson Track.

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It was not long after lunch, having reached the WAA Line that the tracks started to deteriorate. Heavy rainfall from the east coast and north had sent rivers of water inland. The tracks of the WAA Line were starting to break down from the water ingress, but were largely holding together well.

It was about mid afternoon on the WAA Line that the catering trailer launched off a rut, sprung into the air and touched back down with… well, a snap! It was immediately evident that the springs on the right hand side were cactus.

If there is one thing we have learned from our many years experience travelling these parts, it’s that preparation is king! Leaving the metropolitan offices, staff were amazed at the amount of gear we were packing into the vehicles. “Surely you’re not going to need that”. Well out here, hundreds of kilometres away from any town, in some of the most isolated and unforgiving territory of the Outback, you have to be prepared for almost any situation.

So from under the canopy of the 2016 HiLux, we retrieved a new trailer spring and a full complement of tools. Trackside in the Simpson Desert we got to work fitting a new spring stack to our catering trailer. And off we went!

The Simpson is an ever changing ecosystem unlike any other. It attracts unique fauna and flora, the flora is highly subject to the climate conditions and can change dramatically in the space of a day with high mercury coupled with fresh water.

The group found their way to camp, the Icons were all performing faultlessly as were their modern day counterparts. The campfire was ignited, swags laid out and whilst sipping on a cool refreshment or two, we looked forward to entering the heart of the desert tomorrow, on our way to Poeppel Corner.

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Saturday September 17th

Back down Colson Track towards the WAA, Line we trekked across to Erabina Track and headed south to Lone Gum. Everything on track, the convoy was performing faultlessly as our guests from all around the world were enjoying the unique experience of meeting some of our wild and very curious outback friends.

It was around Knolls Track, heading north to rejoin the French Line to conclude our day at Poeppel Corner that our battered catering trailer took another hit. As the weight shifted, departing the dip between two dunes, the coupling sheered off the A-frame completely and detached the trailer from the tow vehicle.

Now how prepared can you really be?

Out of the trucks jumped ARB’s technical support, Mark ‘Lowmount’ Lowry, and Mt. Dare Hotel owner, Dave Cox. After less than 30 seconds appraising the situation, they were each rumbling around in the back of the 79 Series and lo and behold, out emerged a 12volt angle grinder and MIG welder.

This was not going to be a five minute job! The boys got to work, but the day was getting late and it was time to make some alternate plans.

Despite expectations of reaching drier, more solid pastures, the Simpson Desert tracks had continued to deteriorate deep into the centre. The convoy was well past half way, and knowing that behind them were wet roads all the way back to Alice Springs, forward was the only logically answer.

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Unanimously we decided that the best option was to set up camp for the night. Approximately 100kms out of Poeppel Corner meant tomorrow’s trip to Birdsville was going to be a bigger day than planned, we could only hope that the tracks further east were drying out.

Despite the carriage around the catering truck slowly falling apart, the goods inside were preserved and a most glorious Outback supper was prepared.

Sunday 18th September

Peering up through the mesh of the ARB SkyDome swag there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, today already looked brighter. There was buzz in the air as the eggs and bacon fried over the campfire, the trucks receiving their daily routine checks for oil, tyre pressures, fuel and electrics.

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The swags were rolled and returned to their rightful place atop the roof racks and drivers began their negotiations over who was going to drive which Icon. There was, of course, a keen interest in driving some of the newer dual cabs, which were sporting the latest in Old Man Emu BP-51 technology, and had become a welcome interval between driving the rigid frames of the Toyota LandCruiser 40 Series and Land Rover Defender.

Looking at the state of our Icons, they barely resembled the pristine vehicles that left Alice Springs just six days earlier. Having traipsed some muddy and rutted desert tracks, the Icons welcomed a nice and clean river crossing.

GQ recovering 40 Series

All aboard! Now that the trailer repairs were complete (for the second time) the convoy hit the tracks heading to Poeppel Corner. It didn’t take long to discover that perfect blue spring skies were not going to reflect the condition of the tracks ahead.

Travelling through the salt pan area, the low lying flat tracks became nothing short of large clay skid pans. We had left Alice Springs with the confidence that we had beaten the weather. The desert was declared open and the forecast for rain was all in regions well south around Marree. The rainfall from the east coast however had made its way inland and caught us by surprise, continuing to plague our journey towards Birdsville.

With nothing less than a genuine respect for our National Parks and Conservation areas, we took the approach of slow and steady. The conditions were far worse then we had expected and in an effort to conserve the tracks as much as possible, speed was greatly limited, lockers were engaged and respect was given to one of our favourite Australian destinations.

It was early in the day, less than 50kms from camp and we were battling through some tough, rutted and muddy tracks that had formed around the salt pan area of the Simpson Desert Conservation Park.

Travelling in convoy, eight safety flags oscillating through a damp desert, the 40 Series (and its flag) came to a slow halt in the middle of the track. In between the boisterous banter that had not stopped over the UHF radios for the past seven days, a concerned voice broke through. “Guys, we’ve just lost power to the 40”. 

With that, all remaining seven safety flags also came to a halt. Those of us with a mechanical inkling were poised around the open bonnet and dash, looking hopefully to find an easily repairable problem. Those of us without a mechanical clue took the time to enjoy the vast landscape and unique climate we had found ourselves in. While revelling in the freedom and benefits of no phone reception, no emails, and no real responsibilities, nobody denied they would welcome some running water and flushing toilets.

After much debate and consideration, checking ignition lines, alternators and air boxes, it was identified that a failed ignition coil had brought our oldest Icon to its demise.

How prepared can you be? Well it turns out, you could pack an extra ignition coil… but we didn’t. We were around 200kms and a few hundred dunes away from Birdsville.

“Well, I guess we’re towing it”, proclaimed Lowmount, as he appeared with a snatch strap and recovery shackles. “Who wants to be the lucky bugger to drive?”.

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The convoy continued, albeit a little slower for the 79 Series and 40 Series. We were experiencing some sensational scenery, the combination of water and heat resulted in an amazing spread of greenery across a usually red landscape. In some cases we were driving down across dune and covered in foliage, with no clear signs of used wheel tracks.

Every day across the Simpson, despite the unexpected track condition challenges, had been a fantastic experience for all. Driving these 4×4 heroes from yesteryear was filled with nostalgia – a genuinely unique and rewarding experience.

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All eight cars, up until the point of the 40 Series coil failure, were performing superbly, proving their genuine off road capability. The spirit of the group was thriving. While we had never expected to come across some of the challenges, they had made for an amazing experience, both ones that we can share and learn from.

At this point, the biggest learning curve was not underestimating the diversity and isolation of the Outback. While one of the most beautiful and mystical places to venture, she can be equally turbulent and unpredictable.

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Our reduced speed inevitably meant a much longer final day, our priority was to get out of the desert safely and to look after these much loved vehicles and desert tracks.

As the evening dawned upon us, we continued to navigate towards the big unknown. Would Eyre Creek be passable? From the offset, we had allowed a 120km detour up to the Annandale Ruins, to cross the commonly flooded creek at the QAA Line. Given the track conditions we had encountered, we weren’t even sure we would be able to cross there either.

On approaching Eyre Creek at the Birdsville end, the lights on the Defender grew dim, and within moments, it too had become stationary on the track. “Look’s like it’s our turn, the Defender is immobile”, crackled over the UHF.

The vehicles and team huddled around the Defender. The sun went down, the work lights came out, and the mechanically minded began their diagnosis. It’s no secret that the cars had been smashed with mud the majority of this trip. The red, sandy tracks mixed with significant and unexpected inland water had turned to a thick brown mud that just stuck to everything. The Defender’s engine bay was filled with the stuff. Identifying power sources first, it was noticed that the alternator was caked with a brown moulded casing of Simpson mud clay.

We extracted and cleaned off the alternator, reinstalled it and gave the Defender a healthy jump start. The headlights flickered into life, the diesel engine slowly thumped into a beat that made each of us smile with delight… we can continue!

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We continued on to an unlikely opportunity to cross Eyre Creek on the QAA Line. It is fair to say, we were dumbfounded to find the creek was not flooded and was easily passible.

Climbing through these last few hours in the dark, and now coming across a creek crossing, it puts having good driving lights into perspective. In planning this trip we had no intentions of night time driving, but inline with our values around preparation, driving lights were fitted to all the vehicles, and what a difference they made!

There was one milestone left, Big Red, and from there we would drop down into the comforts of the Birdsville Hotel for a well earned rest. All the while the 40 Series, travelling in the wake of the 79 Series, was battling the unforgiving and growing dunes of the Simpson Desert. With no headlights, they had only the tail lights of the 79 to indicate their immediate pathway. With no drive through the wheels, the 40’s steering was even heavier, relying only on the impromptu inertia supplied by the tow vehicle. With no brakes, the only man on board, a native passenger, was frantically trying to steer while coming within inches of collecting the 79 series.

It turns out that the catering trailer had one last malfunction left up its sleeve. With just kms to go before reaching the edge of the desert, one of the wheel hubs erupted. It turned out that the axle had bent in a previous incident and the hub had been slowly grinding away until it finally collapsed, puncturing the tyre at the same time.

So out again with the grinder and welder, the (now bush mechanic qualified) “engineering team”, fashioned a mount using ‘the essentials’ that included fence wire to hold the hub in place and a beer can to maintain the grease and protect the bearings. It was a long, slow slog to get the trailer back into town, pumping the tyre up every 500 meters or so.

The Icons arrived into Birdsville at 11:30pm, with the sorry and sad catering trailer following in at a dim 3am in the morning.

On reporting to the publican of their adventures, they were told “Well, best you get comfortable, as all the roads south and east are closed”.

Stay tuned….

[Note: the auto graveyards of Birdsville were scoured, and incredibly a 40 Series ignition coil was found… the Shorty 40 story continues!]

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