The desert is so vast that no one can know it all. Men go out to the desert, and they are like ships at sea; no one knows when they will return.
– Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio
I went to the desert to find peace. I went into a barren wasteland without water or shade, without the trappings of civilisation, without lines on a map, content to forge a path through hardship toward the distant goal of nothing more than the end of the desert. A goal which had to be worth every sacrifice, every sore muscle and adversity.
But I didn’t head into the desert to find the end of the desert. That would be a goal that could be measured on maps. It’s what couldn’t be measured on any map that I was after. Push the body hard enough and the soul will follow. Against the emptiness of the desert, things become clear. The gradual process of learning to see begins with the milky way setting over the red dunes as bright as the moon, and solidifies with the realisation that you are no longer bored by the absence of the spectacular.
The journey across the Simpson desert can take as many days as you have in your schedule. The French Line usually takes three to five days. I had given myself five to six to cross the Simpson Desert via a circuitous route that would see me heading north from the QAA Line and intercepting Madigan’s route across the desert, in the park’s far northern frontier. It would mean more fuel, more food and more preparation. I might not meet another traveller for the whole time, and the distances were proving challenging to fit into my schedule.
I spent a day in Birdsville filling up jerry cans, checking knots and repacking the truck. I cable-tied the obligatory sand flag to the bull bar, and Ghost was ready to go. You get to know all of the locals in a town like this in several hours, less if you walk everywhere. A friendly hello turns into a conversation that can go anywhere: life history, quantum physics or the secret to happiness. Birdsville is a place of beginnings and endings, but the desert is pure liminality.
Impatient to disembark, I set out along the road, graded runway flat, that runs out to Big Red, the eastern boundary marker for the Simpson desert, a safety orange dune that stands out against the flat plain, a gauntlet against interlopers.
The redness of Big Red stands as a psychological challenge. Is it redder than the dunes west of here, or does one simply become accustomed to the hue, deadening it in the mind?
This is the first of over 1,100 dunes marching westward over 320km. It is one of the tallest, at 40m, affording a glimpse at the rolling sets of dunes ahead. And it is just like paddling out. The eastern faces of the dunes are the lee side, with an angle around 35 degrees, each one the face of a red wave that must be clawed up and surmounted.
From the top, I watch the sun set out over the ocean of sand that lies ahead, nothing but scraggly mulga trees and spinifex breaking the orange monotony. This is the beginning of the QAA/French Line, the shortest and straightest cut through the desert. I won’t stay on it long. My path takes me further north, to follow as closely as I can, the footsteps of one of Australia’s least-sung explorers, Cecil Thomas Madigan.
His arching track through the desert in 1939 is marked on the Hema Map by a series of GPS points, but there is no track there. It is one of the few ‘trackless’ adventures left to modern man, and it promised – or threatened – a longer, harder journey through the Simpson. In a week of travelling, I did not encounter a single soul travelling east. Nor, of course, did Madigan and his team of men and camels that set out from the opposite end of the desert toward Birdsville, in what was notably the first scientific expedition into the desert.
The QAA/French Line is brutal, particularly in the eastern third of the desert, thanks to tall dunes and the insistence of many travellers retaining pressures suited to highway driving in their tyres. The bouncing scallops on the faces of the dunes a testament to idiotic bravery. Like corrugations, these malformations of the track enforce a slow approach by each successive traveller, making the problem worse.
I camped just west of Big Red, the first night with a small pile of gidgee wood radiating its dense red heat and the million stars overhead radiating light as old as our galaxy down on me. It’s cold out here. Really cold. There is no moisture in the atmosphere to trap the radiant heat that rises off the sand. During the day the sand is hot enough to scald bare skin, but as soon as the sun goes down, so does the mercury.
I reflected on the day. Big Red was windy, too windy. The cameras were gritty now, full of small oxidised grains of sand that were once mountains. The wind and rain had decimated a mountain range, and now the sand was slowly eroding my cameras, in a grand geological dance. The sun painted the dunes red in one direction, yellow in the other, a subtle light play that caused the desert to become a chameleon, depending upon which direction you were looking, and what time of the day it was.
The stars came out and it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The waning moon was rising later now, affording a few hours of blackness, against which the teeming millions glistened. I watched stars set, like ultraviolet sunsets, one at a time, straight into the horizon while others rose behind me.
To read part two of Carlisle’s Madigan Line journey click here.