Some people chase mindfulness in the pages of colouring books, but it's much easier to find in the desert. Out there, two days drive from anywhere, more if you want anywhere to be more than a roadhouse, mindfulness is your default setting. You're mindful that a thoughtless step into a clump of spinifex could end in disaster if it's home to a king brown (or any other snake). Mindful that a wrong approach up a dune will leave you beached, up to your axles in hot red sand, sweat and a long-handled shovel your only salvation. Mindful that a miscalculation of how much water you need could be dire, a mechanical breakdown deadly, or at the very least, mind-shatteringly expensive.
According to the gurus, mindfulness is all about living in the moment. In the Simpson Desert there's no dreaming of where the road leads, because being on the road – make that track – is the reason for being there in the first place. It's a cliché, but crossing the Simpson really is about the journey, not the destination, because whichever direction you travel the end point is little more than a petrol pump and a pub – mind you, after three or four days in the desert there is nothing quite so marvellous as downing a cold beer at a stand-up bar, or quite so delightful as a toilet that not only do you not have to dig, but flushes at the touch of a button, even if it is full of frogs. Spend three or four days in the desert and you'll find your concept of luxury has been rather forcefully redefined.
Straddling three states, the Simpson Desert is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world. More than 1,100 dunes, shaped into long red waves by westerly winds, roll from Birdsville in outback Queensland west towards Alice Springs across the top of South Australia. It was the last of the Australian deserts to be explored by Europeans – the first to cross its expanse was Ted Colson, on camel, in 1936; the first vehicle in 1962. Now, it's top of the list for four-wheel drivers, and while thousands of people cross the Simpson each year, and satellite phones mean that help can be summoned if needed, it is still not a trip to be taken lightly.
Crossing the Simpson had been high on my really-want-to-do-that list ever since I'd crested Big Red – the legendary ridge of sand (30-40 metres high, depending on who you ask) 35 kilometres from the Birdsville pub that is not only the highest and most difficult dune in the Simpson, but also the first (or last, depending on which way you're travelling) – and kept driving until sunset, rolling out a swag in the lee of a dune before heading back to town the next morning. That was 15 years ago, and since then I'd skirted around the edges many times, driving out to Finke on the Alice Springs side, making several trips to Lake Eyre and up and down the Oodnadatta track to the south, and even flown over it on a scenic flight from Birdsville. Going all the way though, is an altogether different type of adventure.
There are three main tracks: the French Line (the shortest), the Rig Road (the longest and southern-most) and the WAA Line, all converging into the QAA Line near Poeppel Corner where the NT, SA and Queensland borders meet, 170km west of Birdsville.
Most people take the French Line, but we thought we'd escape the 'crowds' on the less travelled WAA Line, where the dunes are steeper, and softer. We also took the hard way, travelling east to west – the eastern dune faces are steeper due to the prevailing wind direction – but we only got stuck once, on dune number 882 or thereabouts, although we often had to have a couple of 'practice runs' before we got over some of them. It's all about momentum, using the UHF radio to check there's nothing coming the other way and then a slightly manic and very bumpy helter-skelter charge that looks out of control but is a giggle-inducing adrenalin rush, crowned by a triumphant cheer at the crest and a scan of the horizon for any fluorescent flags indicating approaching traffic before slithering down the sandy slope to line up the next one.
This is not a trip where you tick off attractions, although you do tend to measure your progress from landmarks such as Big Red, the usually dry but often boggy Eyre Creek, Poeppel Corner (a selfie at the three-state marker is obligatory), Purni Bore and the oasis of Dalhousie Springs, where as far as luxury baths go soaking in a hot thermal pool after four days without more than a wet-ones wipe is hard to beat, and for us, finally, a hard-earned cold beer at the bar at Mount Dare (it was only 10.45am, but we didn't care!).
There might be 1,100 dunes in the desert, each with more or less the same view, but each and every time I got to the top of one I found myself gasping in awe – in awe of the sheer immensity of space, in awe of the colours, of the emptiness, of the grandiosity of a landscape larger than life, a reminder of how insignificant we are in comparison.
Anyone who think deserts aren't beautiful has never sat atop a dune at sunset, when the sand turns to ruby and flocks of green-winged birds explode across a flame-coloured sky. The beauty out here is in the small things: the blinding brightness of a full moon, the sighing of a midnight breeze as it ruffles the desert oaks, the early-morning lizard tracks criss-crossing the rumpled dunes like lacework, the rumbling low-level growls of feral camels passing by the camp in the dead of night, the impossible fragility of desert wildflowers blooming in such an inhospitable place. The rewards are the primeval satisfaction of building a fire to keep you warm and spending an entire evening mesmerised by the dancing flames, and gazing star-struck at the inky sky where the stars seem so close that you can almost reach out and pull them in, wrapping them around you like a scarf.
It's a drug, this desert crossing caper, a highly addictive escape from workday pressures and mundanity, where the mindfulness that you are completely responsible for your ongoing existence – food, water, shelter, amusement – is exhilarating. So much more fun than colouring-in.
The Simpson stretches between Birdsville (1585km west of Brisbane) and Dalhousie in Witjira National Park in northern SA, (around 700km south-east of Alice Springs); it's between 550 and 715 kilometres across, depending on which track you take. The desert is closed between December 1 and March 15. Best time to travel is May to October.
There is a campground at Dalhousie Springs, elsewhere you can camp anywhere near the track. There is a caravan park in Birdsville (www.birdsvillecaravanpark.com) and motel-style accommodation at the pub (www.theoutback.com.au). Mount Dare also has camping and basic cabin accommodation (www.mtdare.com.au)
Several tours operators run 4WD trips and tag-along tours across the desert for those that don't want to go it alone: see www.diamantina-tour.com.au, www.tristate.com.au, www.tagalongtours.com.au. Don't fancy all that dust? See it from above on a scenic flight from Birdsville: www.centraleagleaviation.com.au
Lee Atkinson travelled at her own expense.
Allow at least four days to cross, but carry enough water (seven litres per person per day) and food for seven (in case of emergency) and a gas stove, as wood is not always available.
It's 4WD only and not suitable for caravans or camper trailers. Carry recovery gear such as snatch straps, Maxtrax ramps and a long-handled shovel. There is no fuel between Birdsville and Mount Dare (70km west of Dalhousie); driving in soft sand increases fuel consumption by almost 50 per cent in diesel vehicles, and almost double in petrol. Lower your tyre pressures to 20-25 psi and scan UHF channel 10 for oncoming vehicles.
Auto club membership (eg: NRMA, RACV or RACQ) does not cover breakdowns in the desert as the track is not a gazetted road; recovery costs $400 per hour including travel time to reach you from either Birdsville or Mount Dare.
WHAT TO BRING
Pack warm clothes for freezing nights and a fly net for day time. Hire a satellite phone at Birdsville and drop it off at Mount Dare (or vice versa): mtdare.com.au. Fluorescent orange and lime 3.5 metre-high sand flags are mandatory.
A Desert Parks Pass is required for entry and camping in the Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve and Witjira National Park: see www.environment.sa.gov.au
FIVE MORE DESERT DRIVES
Rough as guts, but originally straight as the barrel of a gun (hence the name; it has a few kinks these days) this corrugated track traverses the Gibson Desert between Wiluna in WA 1400km to Yulara (Uluru) in the NT. See www.australiasgoldenoutback.com.
ANNE BEADELL HWY
Another favourite of serious four-wheel-drivers, this 1350km track links the WA goldfields (Laverton) to Coober Pedy through the Great Victoria Desert. See www.australiasgoldenoutback.com.
MEERENIE LOOP ROAD
A great introduction to desert driving, this 4WD route (part of the Red Centre Way) through the West MacDonnell Ranges is a very scenic way to get from Alice Springs to Uluru via Kings Canyon. 630km. See www.travelnt.com.
One of the country's most famous desert tracks, the 520km long red dirt highway from Marree in SA to Birdsville in Qld through the Strzlecki, Tirari and Sturt Stony deserts is not the horror stretch it once was. See www.birdsvilleroadhouse.com.au.
The Simpson in miniature, Googs is a 150km-long roller coaster ride up and over more than 360 sand dunes between Ceduna on the Eyre Peninsula to the Stuart Hwy south of Coober Pedy. See www.ceduna.sa.gov.au.