This post is part two of a two-part story. To read part one, click here.
It was about 2.00am when the first droplet of rain landed on my forehead, having squeezed its way through the insect proof mesh of my swag, which, only hours before, had perfectly framed the Milky Way as I drifted off to sleep. The clear skies under which we’d enjoyed many a soothing ale while recounting the day’s encounters had made way for brooding rain clouds and, with them, an imminent downpour.
When day broke, the red clay pan that formed the base of our camp resembled a tidal flat, with hundreds of miniature waterfalls cascading down the edges of our canvas abodes, pooling on the ground beneath. Needless to say, pack up that morning, while swift, was melancholic.
With equipment packed back into (and onto) our fleet of now monotone vehicles, it didn’t take long for the mood to improve, chatter over the UHFs signalling optimism and enthusiasm for the day ahead.
As I settled back into the driver’s seat of the 2016 HiLux and watched the quartet of icons disappear over the day’s inaugural dune, I couldn’t help but be amused by the reversal in convention. You’d expect the wise old owls of society to tread cautiously into the unknown, floundering in the wake of an eager and exuberant younger generation. Not so here, with frivolity aplenty in the older vehicles as our guests bobbed and swayed their way towards the horizon in a cloud of smoke, leaving the youngsters to sedately follow in their footsteps.
Today’s journey would see us continue east along the Rig Road, past the intersection with Colson Track and then further along the WAA line in search of the turnoff to our allocated lunch spot next to the Lone Gum. Our ultimate destination for the day was Poeppel Corner, the official junction of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Issues with the trailer the day before, though, meant we’d likely be pushing the proverbial uphill to make it before dark.
To give each of our Off Road Icons guests plenty of opportunity to enjoy and compare all of the vehicles, the idea was to regularly rotate drivers through each of the four Icons, as well as their late model counterparts. Just a few days into the trip, however, it was becoming evident that bonds were being formed, and we’d be needing the crowbar to pry some of the journos from their chariots of choice. As you’d expect from this eclectic group of vehicles, each had both strengths and foibles, the combination of which would prove to be either loved or merely tolerated.
The Defender was a good example of this love-hate relationship. While the Landy fans would argue until they were blue in the face that the Defender is God’s gift to the automotive industry, with its coil suspension, full-time 4WD and ‘practical’ silhouette, others amongst the group were less enthralled. Instead, the questionable ergonomics (you can easily pick a Defender driver by the 3 shades of difference between their left and right arms, a result of having to hang half out of the driver’s window to fit into the seat), truck like engine and agricultural build quality were the catalyst for many an excuse not to commandeer the machine from Solihull.
Despite the pace of the convoy increasing as we travelled longitudinally down Erabena Track, scooting parallel to the dunes, as the day wore on, it became obvious that we’d fall short of reaching Poeppel Corner before sunset. As we turned north onto Knolls track and skirted the first of what would be many challenging salt lakes, our predictions proved correct.
In contrast to the, at times, monotonous repetition of the valley-dune-valley-dune conditions encountered earlier in the crossing, the terrain, while flatter, was now punctuated by thousands of deep sandy scallops, resulting in a driving experience akin to sitting atop a trotting steed, the constant pitching and rolling putting the vehicles to the ultimate test. As it turned out, the coupling on the trailer was the fuse in the system, detaching completely from the drawbar and causing a premature end to the day’s travel. Still, some 85km short of Poeppel Corner, we set up camp and prepared for a long night on the tools.
If we were to make the remaining 255km journey to Birdsville the next day, an early start was required. With the trailer now repaired, thanks to a well-prepared support truck, carrying all of the tools and parts required to re-weld the coupling to the drawbar, we broke camp not long after dawn. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, our photographer, Michael Ellem, had convinced a few of the team to head off earlier in the 40 Series, in search of a classic sunrise pinup. The plan was for the convoy to meet up with them along the track, before making a concerted push towards the sanctuary of the Birdsville Hotel, with its outback hospitality, hot showers and innerspring mattresses.
Having not even reached double figures on the trip meter, however, Murphy had raised his head once again, with a lingering electrical gremlin relegating the 40 Series to the title of ‘dead weight’. Despite attempting every trick in the book, the ‘Shorty 40’ refused to fire.
Characterful as they continued to be, small metaphoric cracks were beginning to form in the patina of our Icons. While largely insignificant to date, a number of small issues were starting to ring alarm bells, (literally in the case of the Defender’s high temperature alarm) and, with the dead 40 being shackled to the end of a tow strap, reliability concerns were starting to creep into our psyche.
On the flip side, our collection of late model utes had performed flawlessly. So much so, that a decision was made to send the HiLux forward, on its own, to Birdsville to collect a new ignition coil, before turning around and heading back into the desert to convene with the rest of the group and get the 40 Series travelling back under its own steam.
Having drawn the short straw (or long straw depending on your appetite for desert driving) to pilot the HiLux for the mercy dash, with the help of my ARB USA marketing counterpart, we grabbed a sat-phone, a packed lunch and headed off.
Free from the shackles of convoy travel and cruising along a flat, albeit scalloped section of track, we were able to safely and comfortably punt along at speeds not suited to the earlier model vehicles. With the climate control set to 21.5°C, the lumbar support adjusted nicely and a selection of appropriate tunes streaming from my phone to the Toyota’s sound system, it was becoming more evident that, despite the feeling at times of being somewhat isolated from the pure driving experience, it was becoming harder and harder to make a logical argument for the unpredictable older vehicles in the Icon vs aircon debate.
Several songs later, a crackled, barely discernible message came over the UHF. The 40 Series had managed to fire and had been released from the tow vehicle. Good news. Convoy reassembled, we made a right turn from Knolls Track onto the French Line and continued into salt lake country.
If you asked most people without a Simpson Desert notch on their belt how they envisage the terrain, the vast majority would likely describe windswept sand dunes, red in colour and talcum in consistency, with camels, kangaroos and emus roaming endlessly. Not many would describe the numerous salt lakes that lay perpendicular to the French Line on its western side. Fewer still would describe them as the retched, muddy wastelands that we encountered, following unprecedented rain in the area leading up to our arrival.
Several recoveries were performed over the proceeding few hours as we cut a path through each of the lakes, the best approach being to follow in the wheel tracks of previous vehicles were possible, avoiding the temptation to traverse the virgin crust cloaking the remainder of the expansive quagmire. Again, the 40 Series had faltered, again with the electrical gremlins that lay beneath the bonnet. This time, there was no reprieve and the workhorse 79 Series was called into action to drag the powerless relic the remaining 220 odd kilometres to Birdsville.
Poeppel Corner marked the conclusion of the soggy wasteland and provided a good location for the convoy to reassemble, take stock and make a call on the rest of the day’s endeavours. Already mid-afternoon, with at least six hours of driving still between us and Birdsville and a dead 40 Series still shackled to the LandCruiser, the decision was made to split the convoy. The new HiLux and the Ranger camera vehicle would lead the remaining Icons ahead, while the BT-50 (towing the catering trailer) would hang back and assist the conjoined ‘Cruisers.
For the leading group, the going was fairly easy as we kept a steady pace through the dunes, skirting any of the smaller lakes and water courses along the way. As the hours passed and the sun slinked beneath the horizon behind us, the desert took on a whole new persona. While not recommended for the inexperienced or ill-prepared, driving the Simpson under the light of a million stars, watching a crimson moon rise over the dunes ahead is an experience that none of us will forget anytime soon.
By the time we reached Big Red, the largest, most challenging and final dune in the desert, the moon was high in the sky and spirits amongst the group were similarly elevated. Birdsville, a mere 35km of gravel road further along, was now a beaming floodlight at the end of a long and tiring tunnel. It had been an epic crossing, full of challenge and adventure.
For me, the allure of driving a bunch of battle weary, iconic 4WDs across the world’s largest sand dune desert had lived up to expectations. Despite all of their idiosyncrasies, the old school ergonomics and lacklustre performance, the Icons had performed admirably in arduous conditions. However, there is simply no comparison when it comes to all round comfort, breadth of ability, safety and reliability. Others on the trip may disagree, but for me, there is a clear winner in the Icon vs aircon debate. Climate control all the way!
You may be wondering what came of the remainder of our convoy? Let’s just say that six hours turned into twelve and it was after 2.00am when they rolled into Birdsville. What took them so long you ask? That’s another story altogether!