*THE Simpson Desert was supposed to open in full on Saturday March 23, but recent rains have again cut off access from Birdsville. And with more floodwaters heading south from the cyclones, it could be a while before access from the east is available. You can still get into the Simpson from the west via Mt Dare or the north via the Hay River Track, but you can’t cross it east-west. Always check road conditions when planning any outback trip, and stay out of flood waters when possible and off wet outback roads that have been closed. - This article was amended on 28 March 2019
AFTER a late start, the Simpson Desert is now open for the 2019 desert-touring season.
Flood waters heading down the Diamantina from farther north in Queensland were blocking the road from Birdsville to Big Red, but they have now subsided and moved on down to Lake Eyre. The Munga-Thirri National Park (Queensland side) and Munga-Thirri – Simpson Desert Conservation Park (South Australia) are open for travellers.
The Simpson Desert is bucket-list trip for many 4x4 enthusiasts, but it’s not to be taken lightly. The desert is a remote place and the conditions can be harsh on both travellers and their vehicles, so there are a few things to consider when planning your trip to the Simpson.
The most common way across the Simpson is via the French and QAA lines, which will take you between Mount Dare in the west, to Birdsville in the east, and vice-versa. These are the only two places you can get fuel and supplies within cooee of the desert, so ensure you have what you need before you leave.
It’s around 500km of travel between Birdsville and Mount Dare, and you’ll cross more than 1000 sand dunes if following the French Line. Just because your 4x4 will do 500km on a single tank of fuel on the highway, don’t expect it to make it across the desert on the same amount of fuel; the sand can be soft and heavy going and you should plan to use up to three times as much fuel through the desert as you would on the highway. This also allows for a small detour or two to be taken, as well as cover any minor problems that may pop up.
The French Line is generally well-defined and becomes more so as the season goes on, and the dune faces also become more chopped up and can be difficult to climb as more and more vehicles mount them.
Your vehicle needs to be in tip-top condition before you head across the desert. If you breakdown out here help could be a long way away, and getting recovered from the desert is very costly experience.
Ensure your 4x4 is well-maintained and have it checked over by your regular 4x4 mechanic before you set off. It’s always handy to carry a range of spare parts such as fan belts, hoses, fuses, electrical wire and the tools to carry out any minor repairs to keep you going. This is a trip for high-clearance 4x4 vehicles with low range, not soft roaders or SUVs.
Sturdy all terrain type tyres should be fitted to your car as a minimum, with a matching spare. Drop your tyre pressures to around 18-22psi to aid travel over soft sand and be prepared to drop them further to escape trouble.
A shovel is essential and a set of MaxTrax is highly recommended. Raised off-road suspension will also help with ground clearance in soft sand and improve the ride over corrugations and sandy tracks. It’s compulsory for every vehicle to be fitted with a sand flag, which must be of high-vis material and be at least 3.5 metres high when mounted to the front of the vehicle.
UHF radios are essential for car-to-car communications and a great way to get an idea of oncoming traffic you might meet on the crest of a sand dune. There is no cellular phone reception in the desert, so a satellite phone should be carried for emergency communication. If traveling solo an EPIRB or similar locating device should also be considered.
Depending on the time of year it might be days before you see another traveller to help you out, so always carry emergency supplies and plenty of water for the number of passengers you have on-board.
It might be a desert, but there’s plenty to see out in the Simpson so don’t plan to tear across it in just a day or two. Allow four days travel as a minimum. Take your time to enjoy the place and your desert crossing will be memorable for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
If you’re heading out to the Red Centre early this season, it’ll be worth checking out Lake Eyre as the flood waters have moved south to fill the lake with water. Also, be aware that at the time of writing, The Birdsville Track remains closed due to those flood waters so access to the lake will be from the south or western side. Again, check the road conditions to see when the track is open again.
The best way to see the lake full of water is on a flight with Wrightsair out of William Creek.
Simpson Desert Touring permits & links
- You’ll need a Desert Parks Pass, which can be purchased online, at Mount Dare, or at the Wirrarri Visitor Information Centre in Birdsville.
- Traveling the Hay River Track into the North Simpson requires special permits which can be arranged in advance from Direct 4WD in Alice Springs or at: www.direct4wd.com.au/
- For a great guide on crossing the Simpson Desert, take a look at Hema Maps’ Great Desert Tracks: www.hema.com.au
- Mount Dare Homestead: www.mtdare.com.au
- Queensland National Park: parks.des.qld.gov.au
- Birdsville Roadhouse and vehicle recovery: birdsvilleroadhouse.com.au
- Wrightsair: www.wrightsair.com.au/