Alone but for surfing skinks

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One dune down, only 1099 to go - Ainslie MacGibbon takes an unforgettable 'short cut' home.

You know you are in harsh terrain when a place has only satellite phones, first aid supplies, recovery gear, a breakdown service and an airstrip. Oh, and is named Mount Dare.

Mount Dare, in South Australia but only 10 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, is the final "town" before entering the Simpson Desert. It is the jumping-off point for crossing the desert from west to east - the recommended direction to take advantage of the more gentle up-slope to most dunes.

Most people plan their crossing of the Simpson months, even years, out. But not us. Jaded by the flat, corrugated and congested tracks in the region, we're seeking something different - and a short cut back to Sydney. So, mesmerised and minus sensibilities, we gravitate to the mass of red, squiggly lines on the map - dunes - not realising we have just traded in flat driving for uphill driving.

Within its 176,500 square kilometres, the Simpson has the longest network of parallel sand dunes in the world. . The first motorised crossing, by Reg Sprigg and his family, was in 1962 during exploration by gas and oil companies.

Petrol consumption crossing the desert is roughly double the quantity used in ordinary driving, assuming no detours are necessary - a "what if" you don't want to mess with. At Mount Dare we tick off the checklist: desert parks pass, extra fuel, extra water, two spare tyres, air compressor, basic recovery gear, EPIRB (emergency beacon) and a tall flag to help avoid head-on crashes on dune crests. After reading the handbook at the point of no return, we bashfully hire a satellite phone to return when we reach Birdsville.

The first night, we set up camp in Dalhousie Springs, on the edge of the desert. The waterhole is warm, wide and deep, with a lifesaving ring. Drowning in a hot spring hasn't crossed my mind among the myriad other ways we could die in the coming days. The next morning we take the Spring Creek Delta Track, the main access route from the west. The track is scarred by vehicles and is rough going. It's a relief to hit the hot, velvet-like red sand - until we lurch to a bog. It's the first dune. We hesitate and accelerate until the speed washes off to a standstill, thankfully, at the dune's crest. Then we proudly survey the dune with the car perched atop, before knowing there are 1099 more to come. The average height of the dunes is 20 metres, although some are twice that height.

The driving is exciting but slow - half a day of solid driving will net a couple of centimetres on the map. Initially we stick to the Rig Road, the easiest route as it is capped with clay. With confidence we graduate to the French Line (partially capped but eroded) and finally to the WAA Line - the track for cowboys. Naturally, we get off at the first opportunity.

There's no toss-up about which landmark to stop at. Purni Bore, put down in 1963 by the French Petroleum Company, is now a critical water source in the desert. There have been 195 bird species recorded in the Simpson and I reckon most are at Purni Bore the day we are. The sound is deafening, the image spectacular.

Two more solid days of driving follow, with nothing to see. I lie, there is one skink surfing a dune. The next landmark, Poeppel Corner, is the junction of the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. And this significant part of the landscape is marked by ... a post.

Man-made things are laughable here anyway - dwarfed by nature so primitive, yet able to outlive anything we can throw at it. At night, the enormity and intensity of the stars is emasculating, too. But as you spend days and nights clinging to the desert terrain there is something else - a humbling, a comforting perhaps? Undoubtedly, though, it is the best four-day short cut of our lives.