Dune riders

Ainslie MacGibbon sets out with bravado and a shovel on a slow desert crossing.

'Do you think we're going to die?” asks my husband. The question silences the children for the first time in two weeks. “Every chance, if you keep driving,” is the retort I keep to myself.

We can't afford to have a domestic in the desert. I mean, who will get the emergency beacon and the satellite phone when the assets are divided? Instead I try to smile reassuringly and for the fifth time that morning we climb out the windows of the four-wheel drive. We hardly need to step down to the soft red sand – the vehicle is embedded in the dune.

“I didn't quite clear that," he says sheepishly. "Do you think if I come up at this angle we'll make it?” I don't have the heart to tell him he won't see the view from behind the steering wheel again until Sydney. With two shovels, one of them a breadboard, we begin the familiar ritual of excavating the car from the desert under the hostile sun. And the hostile son.

We left Sydney on a driving holiday to Uluru with a hunger for adventure and the promise of splendid isolation. But the solitude never materialises. I have to stop, look, listen and think each time I need to cross the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki tracks. There are many others unsuccessfully seeking solitude at the same time.

So we make a snap decision to return home via the Simpson Desert. I've since realised that such decisions should involve more thought, less snap – a view endorsed by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, national park rangers and police in states that claim a slice of the desert.

But, you see, we have holiday bravado.

It is often said that it rains in the Simpson only if storms get lost. In a somewhat cruel paradox, the Great Artesian Basin is buried under the driest region in Australia. The desert is about 200,000 square kilometres and straddles the junction between the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. It is the longest network of parallel sand dunes in the world. The average height of the dunes is 20 metres, although some rise to 40m. This makes crossing the desert arduous, with travelling speeds about 20 kilometres an hour, slightly higher on salt pans. The first motorised crossing of the Simpson Desert was in 1962 – during exploration by gas and oil companies.

Mount Dare, in South Australia but only 10 kilometres from the Northern Territory border, is our launching point at the desert's western edge. Fewer than a handful of quaint structures comprise Mount Dare, including homestead accommodation and a campground. There is an auto workshop and recovery service, a small supermarket and fuel. Most notable is the Full Bar, with 13 beers, 10 wines and local knowledge that is free, on tap and never runs out. Here we hire a satellite phone, to be returned to the next business hub east of the desert: Birdsville. We set off with $8 Magnums – I figure if someone went to the trouble to get ice-cream to the desert, it would be rude not to partake.

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The first blow to our bravado is the sign as you enter the Simpson Desert from Mount Dare. It delivers a long explanation and bears the font and colours reserved for dire warnings. For the "early readers" in the back seat there are accompanying diagrams illustrating just how many ways you can die in the desert.

The sign says we need a flag raised above the car in case we encounter another vehicle approaching the same dune (of the 1200) from the other side. We don't have a flag, so up goes a fishing rod with red Bond's undies flapping at the top. That should repel other drivers.

The first night we set up camp in Dalhousie Springs, about 70 kilometres south-east of Mount Dare – alone. The waterhole is warm, wide and deep. A large rubber ring sits on the small jetty, inviting anyone who makes it here to take it for a spin. We frolic in the springs, observed by several hundred native birds. The sound is deafening. That night a dingo watches us from the shadows.

The next day we head further into the desert and we're soon surrounded by hot, red sand dotted with spinifex to the horizon. Then the dunes start to come in waves. It is not dissimilar to bobbing in the surf and watching the waves roll in.

Many dunes take several attempts to scale, particularly after a windy night when the peaks are fresh and tracks covered. Working out the angle, speed and the moment to accelerate becomes a fascinating exercise. Solving it is rewarded by the seconds when all four wheels are off the ground and only blue sky is framed by the windscreen.

At night the solitude I sought so keenly is oppressive. The scale is too large to comprehend and the stars and sky seem to wrap around until they gather underneath my feet. It is impossible to ignore the spirituality. I am elated, but anxious.

“Mum, I want sushi,” shouts a child from inside the tent, snapping me back to the familiar and mundane. We talk a little about resources, supply and demand and transport routes before going to sleep. “Can someone please turn off the light?” groans another child. That would be the moon.

On the third day we set out for Lone Gum Tree, just because. I can count on one hand the number of landmarks noted on the desert map.

At noon on the third day we see the first sign of human life. We stop alongside the oncoming vehicle carrying an older German couple in matching safari suits. They have fulfilled their lifelong ambition: to cross the Simpson.

Frankly, they're a bit strange. I think it's the monogrammed names on their jackets. We share a motley lunch in the shade of the cars. In any other setting it would be an unlikely social pairing. But not here.

We finally reach our destination in the late afternoon. It is a gum tree. On its own. A lone gum tree. They call it as they see it in the desert.

It takes us four days to cover the distance between Mount Dare and Birdsville – about 500km, depending on which dunes you take. We limp out of the desert – totally spent. Covered in dirt, sweat and the essence of Australia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Information about track conditions should be sought at Mount Dare, Oodnadatta or Birdsville before entering the Simpson Desert. A desert parks pass is required and available at these locations. The recommended crossing is from west (Mount Dare) to east (Birdsville) to take advantage of the more gentle up-slope to most dunes. Experience driving a 4WD in sand is necessary. It is critical to travel with extra fuel and water and to understand the vehicle's fuel consumption. The desert parks pass handbook advises strongly against towing trailers. Nominate a contact person to advise when you are entering the desert, give an estimated crossing time and advise on completion. The Simpson Desert is closed between December 1 and March 15 due to extreme temperatures.

Equipment

4WD with high clearance, a second spare tyre, air compressor, basic recovery gear, EPIRB (emergency beacon, 406MHz), satellite phone (can be hired from Mount Dare and Birdsville), detailed map (recommended over a GPS), tall flag, extra water and fuel.

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