World’s longest fence: the Australia’s Wild Dog Fence runs a distance of 5,614 kilometers
Lonely Graves and the Dig Tree
By the time Burke’s expedition arrived at Cooper Creek, progress had been critically slow and he decided to split the group. Burke, Wills, Charles Grey and John King would proceed north while the remaining party would set up a base depot and wait. Scorching temperatures, which sent the mercury past the 100-degree mark daily, took their toll on the small posse. Though they are said to have made it to or near the Bay of Carpentaria, supplies were pitifully low and the wet season hindered their return. Several of their camels died, one was abandoned, others were shot and eaten; Charles Gray died of dysentery.
After 18 weeks in the bush they returned to the Cooper Creek basecamp to find the camp empty. Their crew, whom had waited five weeks longer than requested, had departed just hours earlier. Exhausted and suffering from malnutrition, they dug up a cache of provisions buried under a tree engraved with the words “Dig here.” With the help of the Yandruwndha Aborigines, and rationing their remaining supplies, three men survived for six weeks. When Burke fired a shot at a group of Yandruwndha, they fled and abandoned the white men. Within two weeks, Burke and Wills were dead, and King was left to pray for a rescue team. He would survive to detail the fated expedition. Locating “The Dig Tree” and then the grave of Burke, we set up camp nearby and read more of the wayward expedition. There are several good books that chronicle what happened next (In Search of Burke and Wills, and The Dig Tree are recommended).
When your alternator fails 260 kilometers from the nearest town, it can be a major problem
Birdsville and the Simpson Desert
Birdsville, the central settlement and supply center for a county with a population of only 326 souls, lies over 300 kilometers from its nearest neighbor. Birdsville also sits on the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert. Swinging the double doors open to the Birdsville Hotel, the air of Australia’s Wild West flooded past us, across the wood-plank sidewalk, and into the street. Soiled Akubra hats from long-dead drovers and faded photos of early stationers canvassed the sixteen-foot stone and stucco walls. Behind the bar, several dozen personalized stubbie holders (for regular patrons) sat next to long rack of draft beer taps. We bellied up to the bar and proceeded to rub elbows with locals and toss back a few tinnies (canned beer) under a small squadron of moths.
With access to the Simpson being our primary concern, we received an ear-full of reports from various experts that the French Line Track across the Simpson was flooded and impassible. We would need to wait until morning when we’d source a Desert Parks permit and get the low-down from the ranger station.
The Simpson is said to have the largest collection of north-south dunes in the world—approximately 1,400 of them. If the track were passable at all, we’d probably be facing extensive water crossings and boggy mud. The news from the ranger was good. Permits in hand, we headed west towards Big Red, the highest of the Simpson’s tawny expanse. Big Red, which is the region’s highest sand dune and revered by any blue-blooded Aussie, towers to an impressive height of 40 meters (125 feet)—yes, this must be part of Australia’s unique sense of humor. However, from the top you can see several hundred kilometers into the Simpson. On my previous visit the view from the top was of brilliant orange dunes, broken by valleys of thirsty trees, scrub brush, and dead grass. But the previous wet season and incessant rains had brought life to the desert. The view to the west was a verdant sea of green. Our BFG Mud-Terrains dug into the crimson sand as we nosed off the summit. We headed west, following a sandy two-track towards the first of 1,400 dune summits.
Cresting sand dunes can be tricky business, and we were traveling in the opposite directio
Mud Bogs and Long Walks Home
Reports of water in between the dunes were spot on, and our first major detour was around Eyre Creek (where I’d turned back during my 2007 trek). After burying the Land Cruiser hood deep in the murky muck of Eyre, we followed a detour route about 10 kilometers only to return to a spot 20 meters from where we had started. With fuel consumption a constant concern in the Simpson, this could become an issue. After following a few more extended detours, we decided to see what the Land Cruiser could actually do. Why not? We had a good Warn winch and ARB had stocked us with several winch line extension straps.
Our first bogging, a watery 200-meter expanse between adjoining terra firma, was a slogging success. I scouted on foot; Ned then pegged the Land Cruiser’s rev limiter and dove in. The outlook was appearing dim as the vehicle slowed and the tires plied deeper for traction. But Ned stayed with it, working the steering wheel and skinny pedal until reaching the other side. Our confidence was high at this point, and we continued on in this walking and slogging manner until dusk.
For me, there is a unique sensation that comes with pitching camp in the Southern Hemisphere: especially when I know I’m a hundred miles from the closest wall socket, microwave oven, or Xbox. Stars pierce the sky’s inky palette like a billion penlights, drifting lazily west as the Southern Cross lassoes the Celestial Pole. We pitched our swags, prepared a small fire for cooking (we’d purchased a propane stove in Melbourne but upon opening the box realized there was no fuel line), and poured a couple of Bundies and Coke (Bundaberg Rum).
It was the next afternoon when the alternator issue came to light. Ned was guessing that the brushes were either stuck, or completely worn out. I whipped up some tucker (bangers & beans with bread and jam) while Ned wrestled the alternator out from under the Cruiser. The diagnosis was badly frozen brushes; the remedy would require minor surgery and a bit of luck. With a jackknife, screwdriver, and bit of lubrication (spit), Ned delicately massaged the brushes back to life. We shoehorned the unit back in place, crossed our fingers and turned the key….
Watch for “Yankees in the Outback Part II” to see if Chris and Ned survived Australia’s Simpson Desert.