Ever wanted to tackle the Hay River Track? Peter Farmilo from ARB HQ recounts his six day journey and second round at exploring this beautiful Outback region.
We began our journey in Birdsville, after two and a half days travel from Kilsyth, stopping at Burra and Coopers Creek. We refuelled in preparation for our trip into the Simpson Desert and north along the Hay River Track. We last did this trip back in September and were interested in the differences we would encounter as we were attempting the same journey in May.
Our group consisted of three vehicles, Dave and Ruth Ferguson’s Toyota 2003 Troopy, Baz Ingram’s 2012 LandCruiser 79 Series and my 2010 79 Series with my wife, Helen, riding shotgun.
The trip out from Birdsville towards Poeppel Corner was uneventful once we got the tyre pressures correct. I tend to gradually hone in on the correct pressure, which can make the first few dunes a bit of a handful. The “rocking horse effect”, rocking backwards and forwards in the car between dunes gets a bit tiring after a while. The dunes themselves are great fun though.
Once we turned off the QAA line and headed north along the Hay River Track, the adventure really began. We skirted a salt lake until we got into the dunes, the way in was interspersed with areas of twisting and winding track. We set up at the campsite near Beachcomber and ended the day with a roaring camp fire.
We were up early for a hearty breakfast and a few photos of the camp at sunrise. Our last trip had taught us well, and we came prepared to ensure that the scrub ahead caused as little damage to our cars as possible.
Australian Foams and Tapes, a great ARB supplier, had provided us with a 300mm wide contact that we applied to the sides of each vehicle and the other areas that we thought would be exposed to scratching. This took a couple of hours, but the effort was rewarded with very few marks to be found when we unwrapped the vehicles at Batton Hill bush camp.
Initially, it was merely a gentle swish of the scrub across the sides of the vehicles, as the beginning of the track was mostly twisting and turning across the outer reaches of the Hay River. A couple of the dunes we came across would be extremely difficult if taking this trip from north to south, however, our direction meant sliding down the face of these dunes, which proved to be great fun.
Baz, who had never really driven in this type of country, soon got the hang of it. So much so, that we presented him with a blown up photo of one of his better efforts when we all got home.
We came across three cars travelling south to Birdsville. They told us that they had spent an hour getting their vehicles up one dune. We had driven down some pretty serious dunes thus far and felt that they might have some more trouble ahead of them.
We stopped at Madigan’s Camp 15, took some photos and searched the visitors’ book looking for our entry made on the previous trip.
It was surprising to see that more than twenty pages of entries had been made in the subsequent two and a half years since our last visit.
Lying in bed waiting for the sun to rise, I contemplated how the 79 Series had been travelling and decided to make some adjustments to my recently installed BP-51 shock absorbers. Prior to leaving, the engineers had tweaked the settings (rebound and compression) to take into account the weight of the loaded vehicle and the roads we would mostly be driving on. The BP-51s performed fantastic on the Birdsville Track. Driving over crests and through dips, you always felt that you had great contact with the road surface. Even cornering on the corrugations, the vehicle remained solid on the road and did not drift.
We all deflated our tyres to give a better ride and protect them from the large sharp rocks that are always present on the road. After hearing from the others in our group about how severe the vibration from the corrugations were, I was convinced that these BP-51’s are as good as all the hype around the office.
I decided that morning to increase the compression by two increments on all four shocks. The reasoning behind this was that on the previous days I had felt a rocking motion that tended to speed up and get larger the further you went. Then you would slow down until it stopped and then proceed on. By increasing the compression settings, the rocking still happened, but the motion was a lot slower and not as noticeable. This meant that we could travel in more comfort and at a more sustained speed than previously.
I am not a very mechanically minded person and generally like to leave things as they are. Being able to use the tool provided to adjust these settings in a very short time made for a much more enjoyable and comfortable trip through the twisting river bed track.
As the river bed became more defined, the trees seemed to loom larger and the scrub enclosed tightly on the track, these would do the real damage to the vehicle duco. The screeching from these branches as they scraped along the side of the vehicle becomes very disconcerting after a while. Relief finally came when we reached Camp 16, ending the day with another impressive campfire.
We set off the next morning for another day of twisting track around the scrub.
Helen and Dave managed to capture some great photos of the red sand drifts cascading down onto the track next to us. The red sand, green spinifex and clear blue sky made for some really special photographic memories. There was some pretty serious competition as to who had got ‘the money shot’ at the end of each day. It made for very entertaining campfire reminiscing.
Our speed over the past three days was about 20 to 30 kilometres per hour. Most days we were only travelling a bit over 100 kilometres so we only had about four to five hours driving. Constantly turning the steering wheel to avoid the scrub and follow the track meant that good posture and plenty of breaks to stop and stretch were required.
Today the lead vehicle seemed to be following fresh camel tracks for quite some distance which heightened our expectation that we might see some camels. They would follow the track and just when we thought that we had lost them, the tracks suddenly reappeared again.
Ruth spotted some long awaited camels off in the distance. There was a frenzy of turning around vehicles, getting cameras, binoculars and charging off over sand dunes chasing the fast disappearing animals. This was as close as we would get on this trip to seeing these fine desert animals.
That night we setup camp at the turn off to Lake Caroline on the banks of the Hay River. Before dusk we drove out to Lake Caroline to capture some magic sunset photographs.
As we sat around the camp fire the night before, Helen and I were recounting all the bird life we had found at a small bore called Dingo’s Well on our previous trip. Travelling with three people who loved spotting and identifying birds, we had some eager bird watchers ready and rearing to go first thing in the morning.
We were very disappointed when we found the well had long been dry and was just another part of the arid landscape that surrounds it. It brings home the point that a small amount of water can make a massive difference to the environment’s entire ecosystem. Take that water away and the landscape changes dramatically.
Next on our itinerary was the Tropic of Capricorn crossing, the land was flattening out and began to look like cattle station country. The scrub had now receded away from the track and (thankfully) the scratching had stopped.
We came across a bemused group of seven vehicles and camper trailers heading south along the track. They had left Batton Hill that morning and were very interested to get our opinion of the track we had just travelled and any difficulties they might encounter. They seemed well prepared and I didn’t think they would have too much trouble.
We noted that they didn’t have the vehicle protection contact that we had used and there would have definitely been damage to their paintwork. We didn’t say anything, not wanting to spoil the fun, as like most eager 4WDers, they were more excited about the journey ahead than worrying about the consequences of taking it.
We arrived at Batton Hill to the camp of the traditional owners and paid to stay for the night. The ‘donkey’ heated water in the shower was a welcome relief as we had only showered once since leaving Birdsville.
On arrival we had organised to go on a drive to Goyders Pillar. This involved being guided by the traditional owners through a cattle station on their lands which took about thirty minutes to get to. The colours on the rocks and escarpment, reflected from the gorgeous light of sunset made for some beautiful photos.
We drove back in fading light to prepare our dinner and settle in for a relaxing night in front of the fire pit provided.
We packed up to travel to Jervois and refuel for the first time since leaving Birdsville. The trip to Jervois was very straight forward, simply following the fence line until we reached the Plenty Highway.
During our previous trip, I was driving a 2007 Mitsubishi Triton. On that holiday, I managed to achieve a fuel usage of 103.5 litres for the 695 kilometres, travelled at an average of 14.9 l/100 kilometres. For this trip, driving a V8, I was able to complete the 654 kilometres using 104 litres at an average of 15.9 l/100 kilometres.
From Jervois we headed east along the Plenty Highway towards Tobermorey and then north for our trip to the Gulf of Capentaria.
Looking back, we once again have had another fantastic trip along the Hay River. It can be slow going in places, however, this allows for plenty of time to take in the natural beauty of the dunes and trees that you travel through.
I would recommend it to any traveller wanting to do a trip that is a little different and little more isolated than the Simpson Desert crossing.