It is easy to realise that whatever special nests we make – leaves and moss like the marmots and the birds, or tents or piled stone – we all dwell in a house of one room – the world with the firmament for its roof – and are sailing the celestial spaces without leaving tracks. – John Muir.
The monotony of the desert hits me hard. A dune, a valley, a dune, a valley. Until you reach Eyre Creek, nothing much changes. Here, Coolibah trees sprout incongruously against the red dunes, and the sand is a pale gray colour, washed down the creek bed and not yet weathered iron red.
This part of the Simpson is the ‘classic’ desert of the mind. Red dunes after red dunes. The roar of the V8 working under load, climbing the dune, the inhalation sound of the intercooler sucking air through the snorkel next to the driver’s window, then the engine-braking groan going down the back of the dune and the upshift through the flat, corrugated valley…repeat ad infinitum.
Except for the old rusty sign marking Big Red for east-bound travellers, there are no waypoints, no breaks in the desert’s homogeneity, save the greens and yellows of the spinifex bushes, growing in varied colours between and up the sides of the dunes. Here, the dune crests are fairly tame, if cut out. They are rounded from vehicle traffic, but essentially safe.
A rhythm sets in, the LandCruiser bobbing up and down against and over the landscape like a cardiograph. Music hums out of the speakers and the horizon dips and sways. It is the most ocean-like experience I think you can have in a car – the rising waves and coral greens of the spinifex all converging into an inverted submarine world. The colours are all wrong, but the texture and the rhythm are the same. Wind and tides tend to have the same effect on sand.
As the track nears Lake Poeppel, the valleys become more gray and I can smell the clay before I see it. A vast claypan, this area can become impassable after rain, but in the winter the most rain I’ve ever seen in the Simpson was just a few stray drops from wispy clouds that barely covered the stars.
Poeppel Corner marks the tricorner of Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia. From here the track splits. A small metal sign marks the beginning of the Hay River Track. Turn left and I could swing past the boundary marker and onto the French Line to continue straight west.
I turn right up the Hay River Track toward Camp 16 of Madigan’s journey across the northern Simpson, and everything changes.
It is one of the few ‘trackless’ adventures left to modern man, and it promised, or threatened a longer, harder journey through the Simpson.
What looks like a straight run between the dunes becomes a winding, twisted path north. I’m losing time, and the desert does not abide schedules. One can continue north on the Hay River Track all the way to the Plenty Highway, an epic trip unto itself.
Before dusk, I rolled into Camp 16. A huge blazed eucalypt stands in the wash of a dune bearing a faint blaze from Madigan’s expedition, a small chain barrier and a litany of metal plaques commemorating various 4WD club expeditions over the last 40 years or so.
A visitor book is sealed in a metal box with stories and signatures from the road: name, vehicle, itinerary. I’m surprised to see just how many vehicles are actually doing the Madigan Line these days. Where thirty vehicles annually would have been the average five years ago, I counted at least that many in the previous month. The Madigan Line was opening up, at last. Requiring much more fuel and supplies and self-sufficiency than the other routes across the desert, it was the new frontier, the hard way.
Which explains why I was going this way. There wasn’t much history in the track itself. Sometimes a small marker where Madigan’s expedition camped, sometimes nothing, sometimes another visitor book or an old fruit jar stuffed with business cards.
Does anyone ever collect them? Is there a register somewhere they hope archeologists will find, an annotated list of business cards stuffed into the jar at Camp 19?
The condition of the jars and their contents often suggested otherwise. But it brings to light one of the reasons that people cross the desert in the first place: to say they did.
My hands are shaking for a while, I made it, but that was too close.
I have nothing against this – I’m probably half-guilty of it myself. And yet, there is something sordid in using this vast, sparse ecosystem, this remnant of a mountain range that was worn down so thin it could be blown into lateral dunes extending 100km north and south of where I’m standing on the peak, parallel lines that recede endlessly, for nothing more than an ego trip.
I feel like you can’t go into the desert with a full ego – the fall will be all that much harder as it is stripped away.
The desert wind, the night sky, the endless heat, the dreary repetitiousness of reds and greens, of the organic fractal patterns that the spinifex has scrawled into the ripples of sand all combine to peel away layers, of skin, of expectation, of the psyche.
Out here the voice of god rings in my ears like it does no other place. In the quietness there is a throbbing, in the stillness a ringing. The less there seems to be, the more there is. If less is more, is nothing everything?
Dawn rises in a cacophony of strange birdsong. The ground is covered in grasshoppers so delicately coloured they blend in perfectly with the sand, small yellow dots matching the yellow quartzite pebbles that sit on the surface of the red sand like a billion billiard balls on a red cloth table.
Out here the geckos have similar patterns, designed to blend into the ground, or into the broken shapes of spinifex bushes. Their ability to adhere to just about any surface has been the subject of much debate for almost two centuries.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 2000 that scientists discovered the secret: Van der Waals force. By exploiting this weak intermolecular force, the humble gecko can walk inverted on glass surfaces. What I’m wondering is, why is a creature so well adapted to climbing so prevalent in the desert, where this superpower seems redundant? Every morning it seems there is a gecko under my swag taking shelter from the rising heat of the sun.
From camp 15 the track cuts west through the dunes again. I’m a little disappointed, and also immensely relieved, that there is a track through the dunes. Sometimes defined, it is often faint and blown over and I have to pick my own line over the dunes. It is this I came looking for – the real challenge of navigating through the desert by wits, rather than ruts.
Even where there are tracks between the dunes, the ridge tops are all virgin, with high winds in the preceding weeks washing away all evidence of traffic. This creates several problems. The dune crossings are not always perpendicular to the dunes, and the direction the track goes after the crossing varies wildly. Often it is at the point where the front wheels are a metre or more off the ground when this decision must be made, which creates a stressful environment in the LandCruiser.
Somewhere between camps 12 and 11 (Madigan forged his path from west to east, so I’m doing it backwards) I nearly roll the 79 Series. The back tyres have been a little too soft, and all the weight in the canopy means the front end always wants to lift up more than it should. Coupled with the freshly blown dune ridges, every dune is now a sweaty-palmed charge: enough right foot at the base to keep momentum going up, but not so much that the vehicle catches air at the top. The perfect approach, the only way over, is to carry enough speed that the front wheels spin freely in the air as the back axle just rolls over the crest.
On one dune, though, the line is crooked, the face of the dune is blown out and there is only one way up, a straight line up the face with a diagonal crest. The left front wheel hits the metre-high line of vertical sand first, rotating the LandCruiser into the beginnings of a perfect barrel roll. Another thirty kilometres an hour and I might have been able to make it all the way around. It seems to take years.
Ghost leans precipitously, then leans some more. The weight of the cabin feels wrong. My stomach feels wrong. Stuff is rolling across the floor in slow motion. Then the wheels touch again. I made it.
My hands are shaking for a while, I made it, but that was too close. About half an hour later, I miss a crest and I’m rolling back down to try it again. The wheels are slipping and my right front tyre is over a metre in the air, just hanging there. If I go forward, I get bogged. If I go backwards, the car rolls.
This is an interesting predicament and a good lesson in using the right recovery gear for every situation.
The 100 Series has been humming along. Automatic transmissions and sand dunes go together like socks and shoes. Luckily this time it is in front of me. I wind the winch out and slowly pull the 79 Series back onto its feet and keep going. A snatch strap or the MaxTrax would have potentially made the lean worse, so I went with the safest way out.
That night around the campfire I felt like I had survived something. I felt like the desert had tested me and I had passed. Perhaps tomorrow she would let me in a little deeper, into the desert, into myself.