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The Simpson Desert.

[] This article is written in memory of Geoff King (right) who was killed in the Simpson Desert in October 1996.

It is a description of a different way to cross the Simpson Desert. The majority of crossings are from West to East with the reverse crossing less popular. The Colson track also gave folk a chance to cross from the North West and joining the French Line. Led by Geoff Portman in 1991, a group of assorted vehicles crossed from Tarlton Downs Station to Birdsville. This route followed the Hay river bed before cutting Madigan's line near camp 16.

Tarlton Downs Station is situated off the Plenty Highway, 431 kms from Alice Springs. The last fuel was available at Jervois station 60 kms before Tarlton Downs.

We crossed the Gunbarrel Highway from WA to rendezvous with the group at Alice Springs.

The group departed from Alice Springs and headed out through the East MacDonnell Ranges to Arltunga (an old Gold mining Settlement) and across station land to the Plenty highway. We camped near a bore (not at the bore), the first night. This enabled a prompt start for Tarlton Downs the next morning.

Tarlton Downs Track As we left Jervois station, the average fuel carried by the vehicles was 220 litres and we carried 1,245 litres of water. The initial drive through Tarlton Downs was easy (left). We were escorted through the property by the owner and at the edge of the station, we stopped to deflate our tyres to about 18 psi. During that segment, one lad punctured 2 tyres!

The first obstacle was deep soft sand, but only one vehicle (an old Troopy) was bogged. We rock hopped across the Hay River bed, real low range stuff, and turned south east. We drove on a short way before stopping for the night.

Dune Crossing Next day, minor electrical problems delayed the start of a petrol Nissan Patrol but these were sorted temporarily. We stopped for lunch just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and looking around we found old army fuel drums. Since they had no ring pulls on them, they were considered of no value!

Shortly after lunch, we started the first dune crossing (right). In view of the heat, it was no surprise to find another petrol vehicle having fuel problems - vapourisation. We saw assorted wildlife during the day including: Feral camels, bustards, fire tail finches, spinifex mice and children!

We completed 77 kms driving from 0830 until 1700 hrs. Needless to say, we stopped regularly to clean spinifex from under the vehicles and to allow transmissions etc. to cool down. We were in low range all day.

Hay River Crossing North SImpson Desert N.T. The next day saw us heading across country to Lake Caroline, a dry lake. The track in was made with GPS and line of sight marking. No track existed. We crossed the Hay River bed again (left) on the way.

Lake Caroline North Simpson Desert N.T. Once on Lake Caroline (right), it was back into High range running and a chance to put some air through the radiators.

Stones Some unusual stones (left) were found on the bed of the lake, these are thought to represent fossilized plants - but none of us was certain.

As we continued to drive, reports of more punctures were received. A Holden Jackaroo was pulled from a sand dune and we continued to drive down a swale (the space between dunes in a dune field). Numerous moguls caused disruption to one's equanimity and tested suspensions to the utmost. After having a break in the Hay River bed, we continued our bouncing way across country. Eventually we camped having completed 76 km in 9 hours!

Next morning, we awoke to the joyous cries of Brian. Overnight, two of his tyres had deflated. More repairs before we hit the road at 0815. More dunes, more spinifex and more punctures. This was the story of the day. We had calculated the position of Madigan's tree at camp 16 from Madigan's book and, I was trying to find this tree. It was described as being striking, so we guessed it should be easy to spot. More big dunes slowed us down - from 10kph! We all got across, the use of a snatch strap regularly required! We eventually camped, 70 kms in 10.5 hrs.

Madigans Tree picture That night, calculation showed the designated tree should be near, Nigel and Fred said they would look in the morning. We then reduced the weight in the fridges by consuming a few tinnies! We were half way between Jervois and Birdsville. Puncture repair time again and we had ignition problems in a petrol engine.

Next morning was bright and, surprise, hot. We were running about 35-43C most days.

Nigel and Fred headed off to find the tree, we guessed the camp was close, but how close! Less than 500 meters, there it was (left). An apology of a tree, but with the correct blazing on it - also a plaque. We were back where other white men had been before. Position: S2444.45" E13742.74".

picture of Eaglets

We continued to drive, we saw a nest of eaglets (Wedge Tail) (above) and a photo shoot was held. More punctures - we had the poor Jackaroo on 14in front rims and 15in rear, great for going up hill, but not so clever going down. 54kms in 9.5 hrs. That night, we camped on the Northern Territory / Queensland border. The trek to the dunny was interstate!

Kuddaree Water hole pictures A short day of 68 kms was planned for the morrow - Crossing Eyre Creek and onto Kuddaree waterhole (right).

Tyre Tire repairs This drive was quite easy, on a claypan, it was 2WD and 80kph! Play time. We had a 2 night break here. Water in abundance, swimming and rest and recreation. Oh, and more puncture repairs (left).

Eyre Creek Crossing pictures The next two days saw a gentle drive towards Birdsville, the conditions were good (comparatively) and we covered 45kms the first day - but stopped at Annandale Station to camp. Again, we were on permanent water, so swimming was the order of the day - after tyre repairs. The last day saw us covering 145 kms. we crossed Eyre Creek (right) and look forward to crossing Nappanerica Dune, also known as Big Red (below).

Big Red 4x4 pictures

Birdsville 4x4 pictures This is a delightful dune. The run up is long for the flyers or you can just grind up on low tyre pressures and low gear. I dropped my Steeltrek (7-50x16 8ply rock tyres) to 12psi on split rims and eventually crossed the dune. The others all went over in a combination of styles and number of attempts. It is a dip 2/3 of the way up that is the killer. Just as you start to loose momentum, you drop a little and the have to climb again. It is a challenge.

Birdsville Track pictures One puncture only on the last day, as we approached Birdsville (above). We partied in the Birdsville Hotel that night before the group broke up and we all headed to our homes. For us, that meant the Birdsville Track (right) and a dash along the Eyre Highway to Perth another 3300kms away.

The convoy covered 686kms in 10 days. Average fuel consumption:

6 cylinder diesel 4.3k/l (12mpg)
4 cylinder diesel 5.1k/l (14.3mpg)
6 cylinder petrol 2.9k/l (8mpg)
4 cylinder petrol 4.3k/l (12mpg)

Geoff King was an integral part of this group, his enthusiasm and knowledge was a great help to us all. He died attempting a crossing by motor bike with some friends. He was a good father and husband. It was a pleasure knowing you, Geoff.

Nigel Buxton.

Go to the Simpson, Australia, NT or SA pages


  1. C. T. Madigan. Crossing the Dead Heart. Georgian House
  2. Mark Shephard. The Simpson Desert Natural History and Human Endeavour. Giles Publications
  3. Gibson & Cole. A Biological Survey of the Northern Simpson Desert. CCNT technical report 40
  4. C. Winnecke Report on the work of the Horn Expedition 1894. Corkwood Press
  5. C. Sturt. Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia during 1844, 1845 & 1846. LBSA

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