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Overlanding Trip Through Australia's Outback in Vintage Jeeps

Part 1: A Jeep expedition like no other

Overlanding is now the name for camping out of your rig while traveling. We've done it all our lives and know that it's a special journey. As a rule, it's the journey that matters rather than the destination. However, recently both of those things mattered, and we threw in some adventure and peril as well as we crossed the Australian Outback. Our goal was to retrace the famous journey from 50 years ago in Jeeps; the expedition took five hardy souls in three vintage Jeeps from the east coast to the western edge of the continent—some 3,500 miles in all. The most difficult part would be the most important: crossing the Simpson Desert.

Located in the heart of the Outback, Ted Colson was the first European to cross the Simpson Desert in 1936, and then it was crossed by a scientific expedition in 1939 led by Dr. Cecil Madigan. Since Madigan's crossing, no one had trekked the vast wasteland until 1969. At the time, Ian McDonald operated a desert expedition business and had hosted a Jeep executive on vacation. The two hit it off and together they cooked up a marketing plan to promote the new Jeep Overlander, which was just being introduced and built in Australia. The crazy idea was a transcontinental, unsupported Jeep adventure from east to west—straight through the Simpson. Fortunately for all concerned, the crew conquered the Outback and made the epic trip, and their incredible deed faded into history. Until now, that is.

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The original Simpson Desert crossing was an incredible feat. We commend the crew and now know the trials and tribulations they endured.

When Vaughn Becker was a lad growing up in Australia, he followed the epic journey of the Simpson Desert Expedition and vowed that one day he too would stand at the geographical center of that desert. Some 50 years later, he figured that there should be some sort of a memorial or anniversary event and contacted Michael Bowen, then-publisher of Jeep Action Magazine in Australia, who readily concurred. Soon afterward the current publisher, Ben Davidson, and renowned adventurer and photojournalist Chris Collard of Adventure Architects dreamed about actually retracing the route in Jeeps, and the BFGoodrich 50th Anniversary East West Australia Jeep Expedition was born. We immediately agreed to participate, and journalists Justin He and Sue Mead were tapped to join as well. Aussies Alan and Karen McMullen and Paul Graham joined the team, as did historian Derek Redmond from the famous CJ-3B page to round out the troupe. But the icing on the cake was that two of the surviving three original members of the first expedition were keen on joining as well. Although in their eighties, leader Ian McDonald and filmographer Ian Eggleston agreed to cross the Simpson again and give us as much guidance and help as possible.

So began at the BFGoodrich 50th Anniversary East West Australia Jeep Expedition, a trip that would cross the continent with five Jeeps and 13 souls. Over 3,700 miles were traveled in the 15-day crossing of the continent, and nearly half of that time was spent in the isolated Simpson Desert. Follow along for a taste of how incredible a trip it was—and to energize yourself to go farther in your own quest for adventure.

Chris Collard goes over the route with Paul Graham before we headed out from Melbourne, where Paul helped equip both his JK and TJ for the trip. We were lucky to snag the manual-tranny TJ for the voyage.
We flew into Melbourne to help prep the Jeeps, since we are actual Jeepers. We had to fit them with extra fuel tanks and all of the equipment needed for this nearly monthlong expedition.
Since BFGoodrich was the presenting sponsor, we stickered logos on and shod the Jeeps with new KM3 Mud Terrains. They performed flawlessly the entire month of driving.
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Our buddy Jason Lock helped prep the Jeeps and accompanied us on our shopping spree. We loaded up a full cart of chemicals and supplies from the local auto parts store; then we figured out where to pack them.
The stalwart group of (left to right) Chris Collard, Ben Davidson, Paul Graham, and Rick P w poses in front of the JeepKonection, which loaned us the prepped JL to lead the trip across the country. Jason Lock helped drive the Jeep 800 miles north to our starting point at Cape Byron, north of Brisbane.
If you weren't aware, the land Down Under requires the driver to be in the left lane of traffic. That also means that in my case, the manual TJ was shifted with the left hand. It took a few miles to coordinate correctly, but we only drove on the wrong side a few times.
Since we left Melbourne at night, we only made a few hundred miles dodging kangaroos and wallabies on the highway in the dark. We finally pulled into the Cann Valley motel ' For the rest of your life.' It reminded me of the Hotel California, but we did eventually leave in the morning.
The red TJ with the auto trans developed an interesting knock in the engine halfway to Brisbane. It also died on the freeway a few times, and we even changed the oil somewhere along the way, as it seemed to be on borrowed time.
We met up with Michael Bowen at our first camp spot in the rain, and he had sourced a rebuilt distributor for the TJ, since that's where the knock seemed to come from. The Jeep ran much better after the transplant—but not perfectly.
Our meetup in Brisbane was in the dark at the local Jeep dealership for a meet and greet. Local Jeepers brought their cool rides for us to see, and speeches and accolades were made as we met with Ian McDonald and Ian Eggleston of the original expedition. Journalist Sue Mead had also flown in to join our trip.
Local Jeeper "Emu" was our host at his Jeep compound after the meet and greet and showed up with his awesome WWII Jeep. No, it's not stock, and the mods could fill a book we may write someday.
All along our route we were met by local Jeepers keen on showing us their Jeeps. It's a small Jeep community in Australia, and we appreciated the effort from each and every one of them.
The decision was made to leave the red TJ behind due to the persistent knock in the engine, which we suspect was a wiped-out cam lobe on the 4.0L six-cylinder. That meant a complete repack and seat reassignment for one less Jeep in the mix; five Jeeps and 13 people and luggage means a tight fit.
Maxtrax owner Brad McCarthy stopped by to help fit his awesome Maxtrax vehicle recovery device to the spare tires. These aids are incredibly handy and work better than the original expedition's steel ladders.
The night before we pushed off across the continent, Ian McDonald, John Eggleston, Vaughn Becker, and Derek Redmond swap tales around the campfire. We had three weeks to go to cross the continent, and Ian and John's help would prove invaluable.
The continent of Australia is roughly the size of the contiguous United States. However, the population is 25 million—far less than California alone, which is around 40 million. The red dot is Birdsville on the edge of the Simpson Desert, something akin to where Des Moines, Iowa, is on the way from New York City to San Francisco.
We decided to start on the beach on the far eastern shore of the continent. Five Jeeps would hopefully traverse the rugged and desolate continent in an attempt to recreate the 50-year-old adventure with modern Jeeps.
The attempt to start at the Point Byron lighthouse was fraught with hundreds of students on spring break. We tried to get closer and came as far as vehicles could go. Sadly, it's not 50 years ago when access was a bit easier.
Our first stop across the continent was a celebration of the third surviving member of the original adventure. We met up with Malcom Wilson, who, with the other members (left to right: John Eggleston, Ian McDonald, Malcom Wilson, and Rick P w ) regaled in stories and accolades from the 50-year-old adventure.
Heading west into parts unknown but to a few of us, the road eventually degraded from pavement to dirt, and the adventure truly began. Eventually we pulled off the gravel highway and spent the night camping in the Outback far from civilization.
Eventually we ended up at the Birdsville Hotel in Birdsville, the last stop in the "real" world with comfy beds, fuel, and beer. We repacked and fortified ourselves from the bar for the next 8 days of isolation from the rest of the world.
The next morning the local magistrate who had granted permission for certain sections of the Simpson detailed what and where to go. We were the first group in 50 years to traverse the area, and only due to special permission from certain agencies.
Our final fuel fill included every can and tank we had. Eight days and hundreds of miles without support, much less services, meant we were on our own.
We entered the Simpson just outside of Birdsville. While it is a popular overlanding route for tourists, our trek would soon take us off the well-traveled path and into the great unknown.