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East to West Australian Outback Jeep Expedition: Part 2

6,000 kilometers, 1,100 sand dunes, and 5 Jeeps

Atop the crests of the last dozen sand dunes we had called out on the UHV radio for a guy named after a six-foot bird that doesn't fly. We'd parted ways with Emu Parkinson days earlier, our last words identifying a meet point in a remote corner of Australia's Simpson Desert. Fuel supplies were dangerously low, and if we didn't find him we would need to consolidate remaining petrol into one vehicle and make a 400-kilometer trip to Birdsville. Mid-day, the radio crackled to life with music to our ears. "G'day mates, you boys looking for some petrol?" This was the BFGoodrich East-West Australia Jeep Expedition, and we were in a quest to follow Ian McDonald's 1969 tracks from the Pacific Ocean to the continent's most westerly promontory. We were golden!

Slipping down the last dune of the day, we found a set of tire tracks and followed them north—we had nailed the rendezvous point within a kilometer. The afternoon had a celebratory tone and was consumed with transferring 600 liters of petrol, performing vehicle maintenance, and determining the distance, time, and gas needed to reach Old Andado Station. Old Andado, on the Simpson's western terminus, was the precise location that McDonald his team had emerged after 15 days in the desert. But this landmark was merely a breadcrumb, one of hundreds that retraced his decades-old route.

Successful in locating Emu at a pre-arranged fuel dump on the Colson Track, we spent the afternoon transferring 600 liters of fuel into our Jeeps.

Ahead were several hundred more dunes, and Kudamuckra, the feared serpent of the desert, lurked amongst the Mulga shadows. But the mood this night was festive and John Eggleston, videographer from `69, lit a blazer of a campfire. The group settled in around in silence as John and Ian delved into yarns of lore. I recalled a comment from John's journal.

"On reaching the top of the ridge, I looked out over a truly breath-taking sight. Orange-red sand ridges ran parallel to one another, running largely unbroken both north and south of us as far as I could see. "

Theirs was a time before satellite phones, GPS, and electronic babysitters, when delving into clandestine adventure often meant putting your life on the line. These two "old guys," now in their 80s, were the real deal.

Camels, Cut Lines, and Old Andado

John and I were up at 0500, our usual time, to stoke the fire, get the billy going, and set a plan for the day. Moving forward we would need to average 50 kilometers per day, and based on our previous average progress of 8 kph we'd need to take advantage of all available light. Karen and Sue's chuckwagon was dishing out porridge and toast by 0600 and we were wheels-up before sunrise. On this morning, Ian took the wheel of the Wrangler JL we'd been driving. While John had been a bit reserved with the skinny pedal, at the base of every dune Ian spotted his line and mashed it to the floor—each time with an ear-to-ear grin. "I just can't believe how capable these new Jeeps are, and the tires we had to use sand ladders on every steep dune, these tires are just amazing." Their trusty old CJ Overlanders and bias-ply tire were apparently no comparison to our modern Jeeps fitted with TeraFlex suspensions and BFGoodrich KM3 tires.

Larger than life and a comedian at heart, Emu Parkinson entertained the team with colorful tales of the Outback.

A little-known detail about Australia is that it hosts the world's largest camel population. Brought in with Afghan herdsman in the 1800s as pack animals, they were set free when the railroads rendered their services obsolete. The breed like hares (another non-indigenous species gone wild) and there are now more than a million wandering the continent's western deserts. Meeting a train of these humpbacked dromedaries was such an unexpected anomaly that at each occurrence we jump out with our cameras like a gaggle of rubbernecking tourists.

The following afternoon, after working at a painfully slow pace all day, we found a seismic line from French Petroleum's 1962 oil exploration. Veering off our due-west tangent, we took advantage of this smoothish track, hitting speeds of a whopping 20 kph. By sunset we'd covered 60 kilometers, our best progress to date.

While fact and fiction often amalgamate over time, it is theorized that Australia's great Red Center sits on one of the world's richest oil fields—the Aussies are apparently waiting until the rest of the world runs out to tap into their reserves. Whatever the case, this cut line was one of the rare examples of human presence we encountered since entering the Simpson.

It was at the crest of dune #701 or maybe #857, (we lost track), that Old Andado came into view. This was the realm of Molly Clark, a modern-day true-grit pastoralist. She was the first person to greet Ian and John in 1969, and was the first to greet us, although posthumously. We stopped at her gravesite to pay our respects and enjoy another of John's historical orations.

Like a caravan of camels, our posse of Jeeps moved slowly west toward Old Andado Station.

Molly and her husband Malcolm homesteaded Andado Station in 1960, raised cattle, and eventually opened the doors as a guesthouse for travelers. She continued to manage the station after Malcolm died, but had to sell when the government destroyed all livestock to sequester a bovine brucellosis outbreak. The ranch house has been preserved and the 25-square mile station is now a state park with hot running water, and bunks for rent—paid via the honor system.

Although weary after seven days threading a path through the relentless dunes of the Simpson, it was a night for celebration. Only a day away from restocking supplies, Karen's chuckwagon pulled all the stops and served up tucker (bacon cheese burgers and mash) that would delight the most homesick jackaroo. I had stashed a bottle of Johnnie Walker, which we uncorked and raised a toast to John, Ian, and their expedition mates who were no longer with us.

The next morning we gathered under a gum tree and John produced our container of charred Coolabah leaves. As he raised and inverted the vessel, its content was swept away on an easterly like sand in the wind. John praised the Kudamuckra for allowing us safe passage through its desert, and we shared a moment of reverence for the great serpent of the Simpson.

For eons, prevailing winds have pushed the Simpson's sands into north-south running ridges.

Alice, Boggy Hole, and Ancients

Although one could barely consider a town of 25,000 to be large, Alice Springs is the most populated municipality in the country's vast center. Its roots date back to the 1870s and the completion of the Overland Telegraph, and a storied chronical of Afghan cameleers, mining, and rough-cut pastoralists have given it a reputation as the Wild West of the Outback.

After restocking sundries, we headed for the verdant chasm of Palm Valley in Finke Gorge National Park, a striking contrast from the crimson sands of the Simpson. An oasis in an otherwise arid wilderness, Palm Valley hosts thousands of cabbage palms and the Finke River, at 100 million years of age, is said to be one of the oldest catchments on the planet.

Following the sandy river bottom of Boggy Hole Track, we passed the foundation stones of the region's first police station. Established in 1889, the outpost gained national attention when its constable, William Willshire, was charged with the cold-blooded murder two aborigines while they slept. Although the killing of indigenous people was not uncommon, apparently sanctioned by the government until the early 20th century, Willshire's subsequent acquittal caused an outraged.

Without an existing track to follow, we simply set our compass due west and followed the setting sun.

Slipping out of the MacDonnell Range, the days began to meld together once again as we turned the wheels west to Uluru (Ayers Rock), an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most identifiable natural landmarks on the planet. This sacred aboriginal site, which attracts visitors like flies to Vegemite, has been the center of controversy since its discovery in 1873. Although deemed tribal land, the government has heavily influenced access for decades. A few of our party made the famous climb to the summit, as it would be permanently banned just months after our visit.

Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), another monolithic outcropping of blood-red sandstone, faded into the rearview mirror as we crossed into Western Australia on the Great Central Road (GCR). While the GCR is "great" and "central," it is unsealed, heavily corrugated, and we would still be bouncing along on dirt tracks for the next 1,200 kilometers.

Convicts, Comics, and Coastlines

After Cook's discovery of the continent in 1770, the Crown didn't waste any time in clearing out its crowded prisons and shipping the proceeds off to its newest colony. The First Fleet, 11 ships carrying more than 1,000 convicts, arrived in 1787. By the 1850s the prison system had encompassed Western Australia, a wasteland so expansive that few penitentiaries needed walls—anyone who ventured into the bush would certainly perish. The CGR passes through just such an environment, and the hours peeled away as we targeted one lonely roadhouse after another.

Although we were pinched for nine bucks a gallon, it was still the cheapest (only) fuel around. Tracing a dotted magenta line across our map, we passed the Warakurna, Warburton, and Tjukayirla roadhouses, the latter of which is the most isolated and remote outpost in the country.

It must have been in places like this that listless Aussies developed their unique vocabulary; it seems they have a different word for everything. Order a tinnie (can of beer) at the pub and your sheila (girl) might have a stubby (bottle). Top of the tank at the servo (gas station) and order a flat white (coffee with cream) and snag (hot dog) with tomato sauce (ketchup)—one needs a translator just to get some tucker (dinner) and a drink.

We also learned true-blue Aussies mates have an insatiable appetite for self-deprecating and disparaging humor, especially if aimed his wife, brother, sister, cousin, dog, cat, neighbor, or politician—a hereditary hazard of being descendants of British convicts. Even their heroes found solace in living life on the lam. One of their most cherished icons is Ned Kelly, a Robin Hood-like character (he was actually a highwayman, murderer, and gang leader) that was immortalized when he donned a suit of steel armor and stepped in front of a police posse, guns-a-blazing, laughing, and taunting his foe. Shot multiple times, the immortal was captured, tried, convicted, and hanged like a true-blue martyr. Fair dinkum!

Golden spinifex was omnipresent in the Simpson. Each night we needed to clean our radiators of its fine, hair-like fibers.

It was in Leonora that we faced the reality of bitumen (asphalt), which we followed to the Overlander Roadhouse. Engaging four-wheel drive again, a sandy two-track led us west to Shark Bay and Land's End. Although John and Ian had flown home from Alice Springs, we recalled their description of the continent's westernmost promontory . "It will take a full day, the sand is bloody soft and the tracks are narrow and steep."

That afternoon, an angry Indian Ocean battered the shoreline as we nosed our Jeeps onto the precipitous cliff at Steep Point. Uncorking a bottle of fine Scotch, our salutation was one of mixed emotions. During the past weeks our team had traveled nearly 6,000 kilometers in close quarters, shared camp duties, meals, and hardships, and dug and winched each other out of the sand. We had successfully retraced a 50-year-old track through the most remote reaches of the Simpson Desert and become the best of mates. Although some things had changed in previous decades, much were very much the same. The Outback remained Australia's Wild West. Raising a wee dram, we toasted those that might follow our tracks in another 50 years and realizing we were as fleeting as Coolabah ashes drifting on a westerly through the chronical of the Land Down Under.

At low pressure it is easy to peel a bead off the rim; this one lost both inner and outer beads. Using an ARB Twin compressor, reseating the bead was an easy task.
Each of our Jeeps were fitted with Warn winches, Factor55 thimbles, and MaxTrax recovery equipment.
Encounters with camels became commonplace in the Outback. Imported in the 1800s with Afghan cameleers, they were set loose when the railroads put them out of a job. There are now more than a million roaming Australia's remote deserts.
Each morning the team was up before the sun and rolled out of camp by 0700.
Ben Davidson, co-organizer of the BFGoodrich East West Australia Expedition, takes the lead in his Wrangler JKU.
Pastoralist Molly Clark, one of Australia's legends of the Outback, ran Old Andado Station for many years after her husband and sons passed away.
Old Andado Station has been preserved and is now a state park replete with a bunkhouse, running water, and showers.
We spent most of a morning exploring the ruins and examining artifacts around Old Andado Station.
Around the fire each night, Ian and John shared tales of their 1969 expedition.
In addition to bringing one of the coolest Jeeps in the fleet, an LS3-powered JK8 pickup, Alan McMullen was a master on the grill.
From Old Andado Station we made the short, 300-kilometer drive to Alice Springs for fuel and supplies.
After our stint in the arid sands of the Simpson Desert, a cool clear creek in Palm Valley was a refreshing respite.
The team stopped for lunch along the creek in Palm Valley.
Boggy Hole Track attracts hundreds of overlanders each year, but its storied past includes the murder of two aborigines by the local constable in 1890s.
Team member and 4x4 event promotor Alan McMullen kicks up the bull dust in the early morning light.
One thing we love about Australia is that only 40 percent of its roads are paved.
The afternoon sun illuminates Uluru, a UNESCO World Heritage site and sacred land of the Pitjanjatjara Anangu people.
Alan and Karen McMullen lead the team across an alkali flat in their LS3-powered JK8.
Roadhouses along the Great Central Road, which are several hundred kilometers apart, became mandatory stops for fuel and traditional Aussie meet pies.
Departing the Olgas, we turned west on the Great Central Road for a 1,200-kilometer, high-speed blast to Leonora.
Traversing a sandy two-track along Shark Bay.
After 15 days and nearly 6,000 kilometers, the team celebrated reaching Steep Point, the westernmost promontory on the Australian continent.
The 1969 expedition utilized two CJ Overlanders and a CJ5.
Vintage map of the 1969 expedition route.