The sun was slowly dipping towards Australia’s western horizon when I first noticed we had a problem. I glanced over to my traveling mate Ned Bacon and said, “I think our alternator just died.” Ned, a fellow Four Wheeler contributor and crack mechanic, leaned over to eye the voltage gauge and replied, “Yep…do you think it might have been all the water and deep mud you’ve been plowing through?” I let it sink in for a bit, kept my rebuttal thoughts inside my head, then politely suggested we make camp while it was still light. Under most conditions, a bad alternator would be but a minor inconvenience and delay. But we’d just spent two days crossing 260 kilometers of sand dunes since leaving Birdsville (population 115), which is 320 km from Innamincka, population 131, which was 225 km from Packsaddle Station…population about 20 if you include the pet cockatoo and two cats. Get the picture? Bad brushes in the alternator, which might be a short delay on a normal 4WD outing, could be a major issue traveling solo through the Australian Outback. No worries, mate. Ned and I were in good shape, it had been a wet year, and there were plenty of murky creeks to drink from. Then again, a call on the satellite phone would be a more prudent option.
Six days earlier we’d departed Melbourne on the eastern flank of the Great Australian Bight. Our trusted steed was one of ARB’s fleet vehicles: a 79 Series Land Cruiser Ute equipped with a 4.5L turbodiesel, long-range fuel cells and a tray-back bed. We had 14 days, a general route picked out, and a Hema Navigator GPS with detailed maps of the entire continent. The guys at ARB had also set us up with an OzTent and a pair of swags (one man tent). I’d come back to the Simpson to accomplish what I was denied in 2007—to traverse the French Line Track from Birdsville to Mount Dare. Though our current dilemma could have been attributed to my sinking the Cruiser in Eyre Creek back in 2007, and again during the previous day, the 79 Series Land Cruiser remained one of my favorite overland vehicles. And if a field repair could be done, Ned was the mate for the job. I put on my camp host skirt, raised the OzTent and prepared our nightly tucker (dinner) while Ned dove under the hood.
True Blue Australia
It is said that 90 percent of Australia’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the ocean. For a country that occupies an entire continent, that statistic leaves a lot of Outback to be explored.
Unlike the United States, most Australians don’t perceive the four-wheel drive as the enemy of the environment. With the exception of some citified types in Melbourne or Sydney, Aussies embrace the thought of barreling down a bull-dust two-track, fording swollen northern creeks in the “wet” season, or…get this, down miles of sandy beach (which is unheard of on my home state of Taxifornia). In fact, Outback travel to beyond the black swamp, the Mulga, or the back of beyond, is somewhat of a national pastime. There are dozens of 4WD hire (rental) companies where you can source a fully-kitted Nissan, Land Cruiser, or HiLux. Everyday soccer-mom sedans sport massive bullbars, or Roo-bars, to keep the pesky kangaroos from smashing your hood and coming through the windscreen.
The Land Down Under is a place like no other. Toilets flush backwards, its citizens drive on the proper (wrong) side of the road (passed down from their British roots), they speak funny (okay, maybe we speak funny), and have a different (English) word for everything. Truck drivers are truckies, cab drivers are cabbies, and girls are called Sheilas, unless they’re as big as a house…and we can’t print that dearly held Aussie saying. If you are aggro, you’re ticked off, if you’re an alkie you drink too much, and if you have bangers for brekkie, you just ate sausage. This Down Under dialect is True Blue Aussie slang, and I’ll bear witness that one often needs a translator to carry on a conversation. Check out www.koalanet.com for an online translator.
Australia’s Humble Beginnings
Tucked in between the Coral and Tasman Seas to the east, and the Southern and Indian Oceans to the west, Australia sat alone, “on it’s Pat,” as an ocean island for centuries after the Americas were discovered. It wasn’t until Englishman Captain James Cook sailed his crippled ship, The Endeavour, into a safe harbor at Cooktown in 1770 that Australia was claimed by a European entity. In May of 1787, England dispatched the First Fleet in an attempt to colonize their new acquisition. Early the following spring, the flotilla of eleven ships loaded with livestock, seed, soldiers and 736 convicts landed near Sydney Harbor on the continent’s southeast coast. With an overburdened prison system, England had deemed this remote southern island to be the perfect depository for the unwanted dregs of society. The result was a two-fold win for Britain; alleviate the prison issue and colonize their newest acquisition.
Australia was a prison with no walls—10,000 miles of shark and crocodile infested coastline separated Australia’s newest residents from freedom. They could flee inland, away from the life-supporting bounty of the ocean, but the continent’s interior was a harsh and unforgiving place. Upon completion of their sentence of hard labor, if they survived, convicts were granted the same rights as soldiers or free men, and deemed respectable colonists in the Crown’s eye. They were also granted twenty hectares of land. As sentences were fulfilled, freed ex-cons took advantage of the opportunities of this new and wild land—freedom lay on the western horizon, beyond the black swamp. These were tough people, and it was from these arduous and humble beginnings that Australia’s citizenry developed its rough-and-ready, no-nonsense disposition.
By the 1850s settlers had moved west towards the current port city of Melbourne, and then north into the continent’s arid red center, the Outback. With the interior of the continent uncharted, these same hearty individuals homesteaded vast tracks of land and laid the foundation for that would become Australia’s leading exports, textile-quality wool and beef. The overland routes, or stock routes, became the economic arteries for the fledgling country, transporting supplies in, and cattle and wool out.
On the Trail of Burke and Wills
In a country which has not experienced a major conflict on its native shores, save WWII, Australian heroes are borne from their full-on engagement with the motherland; the Outback. Two of these pioneering iconic figures were Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Their charge was to explore the continent’s unknown interior and confirm a route to the Bay of Carpentaria 2,500 kilometers to the north. Though they received full support from the Philosophical Institute and funding via the newly formed Exploration Committee, neither Burke nor Wills were qualified bushmen, and the expedition appeared doomed from the start.
With 19 men, 30 camels, 6 wagons and 20 tonnes of equipment and provisions, they departed Melbourne on August 26, 1860 to a cheering crowd of 15,000. After taking two months to reach Menindee, an eight-day trek for the regular mail coach, two of the expedition’s five officers resigned, 13 had been fired, and much of their opulent and cumbersome gear (cedar-topped oak camp tables for example) were sold off to local stockmen and aborigines. We picked up the trail of Burke and Wills in Menindee and would follow it to Cooper Creek near the current outpost of Innamincka; an 800km trek. This had been the northern limit of previous European exploration.
Cameron Corner and the World’s Longest Fence
The Australian Outback is one of the flattest and most expansive regions of the planet. En route north we passed through a number of Australia’s salt-of-the-earth homesteads and roadhouses: Packsaddle Station, Milparinka and Tibooburra, which are no more than a bar, café, fuel pump, and maybe a few rooms, are the central hubs for the local sheep and cattle stations. Local being a relative term, I talked with a young jackaroo at the monthly Tibooburra Rodeo who said, “We’re all locals here, I just live 200 k [kilometers] away.”
At the intersection of three states, Southern Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, lies the Cameron Corner Road House. In a world where distances are measure by the number of extra jerry cans you need to carry, Cameron Corner is a necessary fuel stop and a great place to toss back a stubbie (beer) and grab evening tucker (food). Cutting the continent nearly in half is Australia’s 5,600-kilometer Dingo Fence, the longest fence in the world. Built in 1884, the fence was designed to keep dingoes from preying on cattle and sheep in the southern stations. We sneaked through a gate at the Toona crossing, passing an “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign, and followed the fence line along the 29th parallel to the Cameron Corner Roadhouse.
Trekking north into the Strzelecki Desert, the parched and desolate landscape revealed the secrets of its geology. This is one of the driest regions on the continent. In another time, waterless rivers, which defy their namesakes and lay void of water during most years, were somehow crafted by floodwaters from the north. Camp this night would be several hundred kilometers to the north on the edge of a dry creek bed near Cordillo Downs Station. Originally homesteaded in 1875, the 7,500 square-kilometer station ran up to 85,000 sheep and produced some of the country’s best wool for export. Today, the massive stone shearing shed and a few old farm implements are all that remain.
Threatening clouds loomed on the horizion and it appeared that the 10-year drought was coming to a waterlogged end. Many of the roads to the north were said to be closed, and the outpost of Birdsville, home of the world famous Birdsville Cup horse race, had been flooded, requiring food and supplies to be air-dropped in. From radio reports at the scattered roadhouses, our quest for a Simpson crossing was appearing rather dim.
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).
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.
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.