Day 6. 473k into the desert
Wanting to savour the morning I woke early and sat up in the swag, watching the sky lightening and listening to the birds greeting the day. The number and variety of birds out here is amazing. And gorgeous song birds. The mornings really are the best time of day out here as the chirping from the night shift finishes and the birds take over for the day shift.
A lot of the desert wildlife is active during the night, so unless you’re lucky you don’t see it, except for dingoes. But you can hear things. While I lie in my swag watching the stars I can also hear chirping, and the rustle of the breeze through the trees. And dingoes howling, you do get dingoes howling at night, but at least then you know how far away they are from you.
As the day warms up the lizards come out to warm themselves in the sun, and you see them scurrying from the track in front of you as you approach. Birds flit across and back in front of the car, and if you look carefully you can see wildflowers, mainly flashing yellow alongside the track. Not a lot of wildflowers, but there are still some out. It’s all stunningly beautiful.
Even with taking my time I was still on the road at 8.08am. I was about 80k short of Big Red, so provided things went well I could easily get to within 10k or so, camp there for the night, and leave the desert the next morning.
After yesterday’s effort I really didn’t want to have to dig again. I didn’t even want to have to roll back down a dune, just in case. So I probably gave the dunes a bit more than they needed. Whenever a dune looked steep, or particularly choppy I’d stop at the bottom, put the car into low range, and then rev the shit out of it going up. And I still didn’t get out of second gear, there is no way I wanted to have to do a gear change from 3rd to 2nd on a dune and lose momentum. All the time I kept hoping that the car would handle it.
I know that’s not how you’re meant to use low range, and to be honest I don’t even know if it was helping. I felt more comfortable and in control in high range, but what the hell. It was working for me so I wasn’t going to change anything. Even if it was just psychological.
Then I came up to the tallest, steepest dune I had faced so far. And it was very, very choppy, with two separate tracks. Lots of people had obviously not made it up this one the first time. I glanced at the clock in the car. Yep. Almost 9.30am. Witching hour.
“Mamma. Help me.” I yelled into the sky. I don’t know why. My mother hates being called mamma, and I don’t think she’s ever driven a sand dune like this in her life. She wouldn’t be much help. But no matter how old you get, when you’re in trouble you want your mother.
“The shortest route between two points is a straight line” I told myself. But that track was extremely choppy. Perhaps the alternate route would be better. No. Don’t break your rules. Go straight up.
So I looked at it, and decided. Straight up and over the top. I dropped the car into low range and gunned it. Up I went. Bouncing over the whoops, up and up. Then the car started slowing down. “Keep going girl” I whispered “Keep going”. It kept going. Then it got closer to the top and seemed to lose all momentum. I was about to stop and roll back down, but the car was still inching forward. “Don’t take your foot off the accelerator. Keep going.” I told myself “Give it a bit more”. Centimetre by centimetre, turning this way and then the other, the car kept going. And then, there we were, at the top and starting down the other side.
I let out the breath that I didn’t even realise I’d been holding. Oh, god. I hope they don’t get worse than this. I’m sure by this stage I don’t have to tell you. They did.
Every time I got over a dune I thought to myself “that’s one less that has to be done”. The dunes were getting steeper, but they were also getting further apart, with bigger clay pans in between. And gum trees. I knew I must be getting close to the edge when the gum trees started appearing. There were even a few creek beds.
With all the clay pans I made really good time, and by midday I’d done about 70k. Time to stop and set up camp. But I was on a roll. I didn’t want to jeopardise my luck by stopping. I hadn’t even had to roll back down a dune yet. And did I mention they were getting steeper. If I didn’t continue now I would have to face them first thing in the morning. And there’d be another 9.30am to get through.
I’d also passed three lots of vehicles going west by this time, and I knew there was another group behind me headed east. The sense of isolation and solitude just wasn’t there any more.
So I continued, it was only about 10k to Big Red, might as well keep going. That’s probably only a dozen or so dunes left to do with the distance between them now. I’ll be there in an hour.
Along the clay pans. Over the whoops. Up and over a dune. Down the whoops. Along more whoops through soft sand. And repeat.
I got to the 10k mark and thought to myself “Just over this next dune or two”.
But it wasn’t. I went over that dune and there was another dune in front of me. So I went over that dune and there was another dune in front of me. And another one, and another one.
And then, at the top of a particularly soft dune I heard a loud ‘clunk’ from underneath the car. That really was the point when I wanted to cry. So close, please don’t fall apart on me now. Only another couple of dunes, surely.
I pulled up at the bottom of the dune, got down underneath the car, and checked everything that I could. Nothing looked wrong to me, so it was cross my fingers and hope. Surely I must be close by now.
I kept driving, and kept thinking “it’s got to be over this one”. Believe me, by this stage I was all duned out and I definitely didn’t want to have to face any more dunes in the morning. I was ready to get on the sat phone and call in a helicopter. I didn’t care how much it cost. I just wanted out of there.
I know exactly how Griselda Sprigg felt. Dune is a four letter word, and I used other four letter words on them. A lot of other four letter words sometimes.
But eventually, 10k further along than I thought, there it was. Big Red. The biggest, and last, dune in the Simpson.
I looked at it. Looked at all the tracks up it, and thought. There was nobody else around and it looked like nobody had gone over this morning, so the tracks were pretty good. Doc really wants me to do Big Red and send him a photo from the top. And really, that right hand track looks quite doable.
So I got closer, and looked, and thought some more.
Then I shrugged my shoulders and turned right towards the chicken track. I just spent 6 days alone in the Simpson Desert, and my car still has to get me home. I’m taking the easy way out. I’ve got nothing to prove. And that clunk a few dunes back is still worrying me.
All I want now is to not see another dune for a looooong time, and to have a celebratory glass of bubbly in the Birdsville pub.
473k through the Simpson Desert, and 68 litres of petrol, including what I spilled refuelling. That’s 14.37 litres per hundred kilometres. Apart from the very poor consumption I was getting before I had the head gasket fixed, standard consumption fully laden like it was is about 10-11 litres per hundred. So not quite 50% more, and I think most of that was used on the last day gunning it over steep dunes.
And I am extremely grateful for that extra 20 litres of petrol that meant the fuel gauge wasn’t right on empty at the end. That peace of mind was priceless.