Nothing now but the greatest good luck can now save any of us; and as for myself, I may live four or five days if the weather continues warm. My pulse are at forty-eight, and very weak, and my legs and arms are nearly skin and bone … starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant.
–William John Wills, June 26, 1861
We had spent the last week following the trail of Robert Burke and John Wills from Melbourne to Innamincka, on the banks of Cooper Creek. It was here that Burke and Wills breathed their last breath; their emaciated bodies being put to rest by the lone survivor, John King. One afternoon, sitting next to the grave of Burke, we tried to imagine the strife and struggle they endured in their last days. John Wills, as he penned his last journal entry, had a clear vision of the future. He died on June 28.
Currently in the middle of the Simpson Desert, we were a hundred miles from the nearest settlement. Fourteen hours earlier, on the previous afternoon, our alternator died. Mud, dust, more mud, and sticky brushes had rendered it DOA. We’d worked into the night in an attempt to resuscitate the lifeblood of our vehicle’s electrical system. Time under the hood of our dead vehicle gave us plenty of opportunity to think about that afternoon with Burke’s headstone. Unlike Burke, we had a satellite phone, plenty of food, and the French Line track received a fair amount of traffic. It is not likely that anyone would be writing our obituaries any time soon: but the 100 miles to town did pose a concern.
The other part of “we” was fellow Four Wheeler contributor Ned “Master Mechanic” Bacon. After Ned’s trail fix (I had put on the camp skirt and made dinner), we couldn’t wait until morning to know if we’d be walking back to Birdsville; Ned gingerly turned the key. We did a little victory dance around a bottle of Bundaberg Rum as the engine fired and the charge gauge jumped straight to 14 volts. Crossing the Simpson, which I’d been denied on previous treks, would be ours.
Australia had emerged from a decade-long drought with a vengeance. The blue lines on the map, which usually indicate a dry creek or lake, now had meaning. Low areas between the Simpson’s 1,000-plus north-south running sand dunes offered lots of bogging and slogging. To add to the snotty mess, it began to rain; and rained all day. If we made it to the Mount Dare Roadhouse this night, another 150 kilometers, we’d treat ourselves to one of their famous Australian steak dinners.
In the desert, life is spelled w-a-t-e-r. Without it, your cattle and sheep die, your chickens die, your crops die, and you need to find another place to live. Dalhousie Springs is a good example of the gift of life in the desert. A collection of 60 artesian springs, Dalhousie, is the largest of the Mound Spring system, and provided water for Simpson Desert livestock prior to the drilling of the current bore system. We passed the decaying ruins of the old cattle station en route to Mt. Dare.
Aussie Speak, the Old Ghan, and Alice Springs
In their typical non-conforming fashion, Australians have developed a new word to define just about every aspect of life in the Outback. In their direct and good-natured way they’ll lay down a gauntlet of Aussie nomenclature that will leave you quite confused. I received this greeting on a previous trek through Queensland in 2000:
“G’day mate … Ya on ya pat? … Good on ya!! Pull a tennie from the esky and join us for some tucker. Ya good on the fang? Take a squiz at the snags on the barbie, no salad pushers here mate.” If this made no sense to you, no worries; let me translate from Aussie speak to proper English.
“Hi friend, are you traveling alone?” You see, Aussies like things that rhyme, so follow along: “pat,” as in Pat Malone, rhymes with alone. So if you are traveling alone you are “on your Pat.” Make sense? Okay, not really. But when you pass through the equatorial zones heading for the land down under, the world takes on a different look; toilets flush backwards, they drive on the wrong side of the road, and the Big Dipper is nowhere to be found. I’ll continue: “Grab a beer from the ice chest and join us for dinner. Are you hungry? Check out the hot dogs on the BBQ, no vegetarians here ay?” Ahhh, Australia, it’s a place everyone should experience at least once: And as for the Aussies, they have a perpetually comic nature and have a way of finding humor in just about anything (you would too if your gene pool was spilled over from a river of British convicts).
Example: One of Australia’s national heroes is Ned Kelly, a bank robber. Kelly, who was wanted for the murder of three police officers, slipped on a suit of armor and, with two guns drawn, charged straight into the pointed guns of a 30-man posse. It must have run in the family; Kelly had been born to an Irish convict father. By the way, he survived with only minor gunshot wounds … but was hanged shortly after.
Pulling into Mt. Dare in a torrential downpour, we slopped our way through the red mud to the pub. Sporting a traditional Aussie duster and Akubra full-brim hat, the publican greeted us, “G’day boys, it’s a bloody mess out there, they’ll be shut’n the road I reckon, lucky you got here … come on in.” We’d successfully crossed 500-plus kilometers of the Simpson’s dunes and bogs; it was time for a steak, a shower, and considering the 4 inches of standing mud, a room.
The Ghan railroad, which ran between Port Augusta in the south to Alice Springs in the north, introduced Central Australia to the conveniences of modern life. Prior to the Ghan, it was a multi-week horseback or camel ride to Alice Springs. Distances between sheep stations, which are often ten thousand square kilometers, were so great that it was not uncommon for grown adults to have never visited a city.
We crossed into the Northern Territory and pulled onto the Old Ghan rail bed heading north towards Alice Springs. We’d been warned of getting tire punctures from the thousands of railroad spikes left over from when they pulled the tracks. We attempted to dodge them at first, a futile effort, and ended up tossing caution to the wind and trusting that our BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains would prevail. We were also warned that if we got stuck, it might be a day or so before another car came by.
About mid-day, we came upon our first traffic jam; a family towing a camp trailer with an SUV. They were off the road and main track and buried up to the frame. In the process of pulling them out, we found ourselves in a bog as well. Fortunately, we’d borrowed the Land Cruiser from ARB and it was stocked with a pile of recovery straps and winch line extenders; we needed all of them to reach the one worthy tree. Three hours later, with every person and bit of gear a bloody muddy mess (a set of Maxtrax worked wonders for this recovery), the family was on their merry way.
I’m not sure why, but Alice Springs has been on my bucket list. Maybe it’s their annual boat race in a dry riverbed. In any account, it would be the only town of substance in our foreseeable future and a good place to top off supplies. Our next destination would be Uluru (Ayres Rock), a magnificent sandstone monolith some 450 kilometers to the southwest: by paved road, which is boring.
Palm Oases, Uluru, and the Olgas
With just a few clicks of pavement we located the track to Palm Valley in the Krichauff Range. We had been directed there by a bloke we met in the Simpson; it is truly one of the gems of Australia. A mix between Moab and Mulegé, red rock sandstone walls rise to either side of a palm-lined canyon. Dividing the valley is a crystal clear stream, the Finke River, which meanders along over a sculpted sandstone bottom. We must have, uh, missed the “No Camping Beyond This Point” sign, as we drove to the furthest vehicle-accessible point and set up our swags by the water’s edge; apparently we missed the improved tourist campground as well. Another nice thing about Palm Valley … no crocs.
Though early rains had swelled the Finke River, offering several over-the-hood fording opportunities (this was a strong argument for the Safari Snorkel), as we followed the riverbed south into the arid flatlands, it waned to a trickle before disappearing into the desert sands.
Uluru, also known as Ayres Rock, rises 1,142 feet above its table-flat surroundings and is one of the most recognized natural wonders of the world; it is hallowed ground to the Pitjantjatjara, the Aboriginal people of the region. Home to a number of natural springs, waterholes and caves, the area has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. Ancient rock art can be found in a number of the caves, and there are dozens of Aboriginal legends of how the rock came to be. When Ned visited Uluru in the early ’80s, you could drive, walk, or camp just about anywhere. Things have changed and access is now ridiculously controlled; no camping, no stopping on the side of the road for a photo, no … no … no. It is nonetheless spectacular; we paid our park fee, did the tourist photos, and headed for the Olgas.
The redheaded orphan stepchild to Uluru, Kata Tjuta (known as The Olgas to us white fellas) is of similar form to Uluru. Sixty sandstone domes comprise an eclectic clump amidst the desert sands. Flora and fauna are drawn to sweet water springs that flow from deep fissures in its center. As with Uluru, it is sacred ground and the site of numerous Aboriginal ceremonies. After our 24 hours of paid-for tourism, we needed to turn the wheels south (ARB would probably want the rig back).
Opal mines, Goannas, and prehistoric lakes
Australia’s interior can present one of the harshest environments on the planet. It stretches across the entire continent from the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean, save a few miles near the coast. It is said that ninety percent of the Australian population lives within sixty miles of an ocean. This leaves a bit more than two-million souls, a quarter of New York City, in an area nearly the size of the lower 48 States. If there is one defining Australian feature, it is that distances between points are measured in days rather than hours.
The return trek to Melbourne would need to be on dirt tracks as much as possible. A side road into Mulga Park and then across the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal Land would deposit us near the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track. As we traveled this vast and arid land, we could not help but to wonder how the Aborigines survived for the past 50 millennia.
Besides being the most arid inhabited continent on the planet, Australia has been graced with nine of the world’s most venomous snakes and a number of lethal spiders. There is a 6-foot-tall flightless bird, the cassowary, with razor-sharp talons and a less-than-amicable nature, the Red Kangaroo (also up to 6 feet tall and able to leap 30 feet on a single bound), and lest we forget the salties. Salties, or estuarial saltwater crocodiles, are a major issue along Australia’s beautiful inland waterways and coastlines. We were fortunate to see a few snakes (unfortunately most of them were dead) and a number of Goannas; the giant lizards of Australia.
The Oodnadatta Track, a 620-kilometer graded dirt road between Marree and Marla is an uneventful drive—unless it’s wet. Let the rain begin … continue. The first 200 kilometers is one of the flattest and most featureless areas I’ve witnessed (Of course, Australia is the flattest inhabited continent. Australians claim 500-foot-tall hills to be—mountains). The road was firm, but the rain had turned it into a greasy mess. Think driving on a well-greased ice rink. Neither Ned nor I could keep the Land Cruiser in a straight line. The slightest tilt of the road (even a gust of wind) would put us in a high-speed, four-wheel drift. If you are wondering; yes, we were having a blast.
The opal capital of the world, or at least Australia, Coober Pedy is one bizarre place. It is the middle of the aforementioned Eden, and temperatures in the summer soar well past the century mark: there are no shade trees in Coober Pedy. Miners soon realized it was much nicer to stay in the naturally cool opal mines. Before long, they were building homes in them, now known as “dugouts.” Everyone is underground: hotels, the church, bars, restaurants, and shops; just about everything. When in Rome … we grabbed an underground room at an underground hostel and had a drink at an underground bar.
When we reached Lake Eyre, our final destination before heading back to the chaos of Melbourne, the odometer clicked 5,500 kilometers since ARB had handed us the keys. Lake Eyre, at 49 feet below sea level, is the largest in the country. Australians like to boast that it is the 18th largest lake in the world (Again, think Aussie humor) … when it is full … which happens every 100 years. The drought had passed and we were fortunate to see it with water. Lake Eyre would again be a desiccated salt flat by the middle of the dry season.
We’d been on the road for 14 days, cooked our meals on an open fire (keep in mind, our new gas stove had no gas line), tossed back tinnies and had good chinwags with local blokes, and slept in a traditional Aussie swag under the southern constellations. Ned saved our bacon (pun intended) with his alternator wizardry, and I could claim my crossing of the Simpson Desert. As I turned the wheels south towards Melbourne, Ned pulled out our HEMA atlas. I pointed towards the west coast and said, “I’ve always wanted to do the Canning Stock Route … I wonder if ARB would notice if we didn’t bring the Land Cruiser back.”