Day 52 (15th June) – A ‘no-ride day’ at Mt Dare. I don’t call them ‘rest days’ anymore as there’s always chores to do, though this time we were determined to get Caroline some rest. There’s no alarm on no-ride days … sleeping in rules!! And who wants to cook on a day off either, so it was back to the pub for another lunch burger … but nooooo, they ran out of fries with the huge crowds last night and the resupply truck isn’t due in till tomorrow!!! The afternoon included refilling water tanks, fuel tanks, minor repairs to the ‘cruisers wiper (you can fix anything with a few zip ties and gaff tape), the trailer electrics and booking dinner … at the pub of course. Jobs complete, hot showers enjoyed and it was time to return for our steak, veggies and ale followed by an early night, ready to head out into the desert in the morning.
Day 53 Started with some ‘media commitments’, as various folks wanted to talk to the “crazy” lady on a pushbike. Tony from Australian 4×4 Treks (Rockhampton) was super excited to see us heading off and some more pics were taken. Russ and Matt decided the Mt Dare bacon and egg breaky toastie was a better option than porridge; so, armed with coffee (well it came in a normal looking takeaway cup at least) and toasties, we set off on the road to Dalhousie Springs.
Caroline described the morning ride as rocky with headwind – no fun – before we crossed the boundary into the National Park and the road improved a bit. After passing Mt Hammersley, we crossed the sandy creek bed of Opossum Waterhole and stopped to have a chat with some poor folks with a broken trailer and take some photo’s of this picturesque spot. Caroline enjoyed a rocky downhill chicane followed by some washouts on the mountain bike along the track to 3 O’clock Creek, which looked like a pleasant campsite with potable water. Approaching Dalhousie Springs the road had some nice faster sections, though a big pit of bulldust was a new experience for Caroline with even the bike tyres leaving a trail of dust. The last 4km to camp was a quick ride on hard clay track and Caroline even managed to get a little air over some larger humps!! We set camp for a late lunch then donned the swimmers for a very well-deserved soak in the hot springs. Our ‘bath’ was followed by an afternoon resting and then dinner of beef stew. In such a lovely place, we were really disappointed that a couple groups ignored the MANY signs about NO wood fires and built a bonfire regardless. Grrrrr!!
Day 54 (17th) – Our plans for an early start didn’t quite eventuate. Matt and Russ bolted down for a last dip in the springs and were watching the many birds feeding in the early morning when they all took off due to illegal drone flying. Again, the signs couldn’t be more obvious and people’s blatant disregard for the beautiful place they came to see and the enjoyment of others is annoying. Caroline started off in the wrong direction (to her credit it was only for about 100m), but once back on track enjoyed a fairly smooth 15km before soft sand had her legs working harder. The track had patches of sand before a hard claypan allowed a quick 10km in to lunch. A couple 4wd’s stopped while we were having lunch with one of the drivers, a prostate cancer survivor, who happened to be a QLD based doctor and a COBWEB (cranky old bugger with expensive bike) by his own admission. Rolling out from lunch Caroline noticed her front tyre getting very soft, nothing a quick pump up couldn’t sort out… for now. Some lovely travelers picked up on our radio chat and sang to “Sweet Caroline” with some cheers and well wishes. Matt had a dingo follow the car along the road for a bit, then it lay down in the sand for a rest until Caroline’s gear change coming over the hill disturbed it. We stopped at Purni Bore for a quick look and some guys who had heard from others about ‘the bike’ were super keen to say g’day and get some photos. After a hard day in the saddle, Caroline was exhausted when we stopped a bit short of the day’s target at about 5pm with 82km on the bike computer, 4200cal burnt riding and two very tired legs. We quickly set up camp between the dunes, about 500m east of the Witjira National Park boundary, and I sorted some hot water for Caroline’s tub wash, Russ started on dinner while Matt sorted our fire pit and wood for the evening. Dinner was demolished and Russ noted how long the bag of marshmallows had lasted with no kids around! As the temperature dropped and the port glass was empty it was time to crawl into bed.
Day 55 saw us up in the dark and then enjoying our first sand dune desert sunrise, which was beautifully red. With 20km’s to make up from yesterday, we were aiming for an earlier start to beat the traffic on the remaining section of the French Line before we turned onto the Rig Road – the sand is firmer when it’s cold and not churned up by dozens of vehicles. Soon after leaving camp and crossing a couple dunes, Caroline called out “Good Morning” to a very surprised group camped near the track. Their response was of smiles and “You’re mad!” was met with an “I know!” from Caroline and an inward chuckle. We had several groups stop today to have a chat about the trip and make donations as well – Jacksons 4×4 Accessories from Murray Bridge, then ‘Convoy 7’ (a group of 7 vehicles from Adelaide) all pulled up and got out to give Caroline a huge cheer as she cycled up to them. So much excitement with many questions and photos to follow – it was like a media scrum!
There was a lot of up and down sand dunes as we headed east with Caroline getting as much of a run up on the flatter, harder sections of track between the dunes. Next came Wonga Junction and our right turn onto the Rig Road – the sign informing us we had 388km to the Birdsville track! Expecting this section of track to be somewhat better, it was frustrating to find it was not and to add to Caroline’s work it was also into the wind. One particularly soft patch resulted in a wobble and a leap off the bike as it fell. Russ and I following fairly closely scored it a 9.5 dismount! Next was a left turn at Mokari airstrip (abandoned) onto the WAA Line, where a large flat area made a good spot for lunch. With the Patrol having seemingly sprung a leak in the reserve coolant tank, we took the opportunity to switch the trailer on to Russell’s Landcruiser to reduce the load on the Patrol. We saw a motorbike ride past to Pecanek’s Memorial, then turn around and go back the other way. He caught up with us again and explained how he noticed his water container missing after one of his luggage straps had broken and he had to go back a couple k’s to find it. Interesting chap who has ridden across Africa and many other places. We started seeing some harder clay surfaces on the track which made the dunes a bit easier to deal with and Russ brought a laugh to Caroline with his quip about the “little engine that could” as she worked her way up one of the dunes. Caroline put in an order for toasted banana bread over the radio, suggesting the bonnet or exhaust pipe of the Patrol might do the trick, but in the end she enjoyed it straight from the packet for an afternoon energy boost. It was getting late into the afternoon when we turned at Georges Junction with the temperature starting to drop; though with the SSW wind, it was one of those days that never really warmed up. Caroline bravely decided to push on so not to lose too much distance and on a better track surface, while Matt and I scouted ahead for a camp spot for the night – somewhere flat with a little protection from the wind is all we need. Caroline arrived, with Russ giving a close escort and attempting to warm Caroline by turning on every light on the front of the ‘cruiser! One of our later finishes of the 55 days so far. We camped beside the Rig Road with some bushes for a bit of shelter about 8km south of Georges Junction, where Russ whipped up a chicken risotto for dinner.
Day 56 – The entire morning was spent tackling soft dunes with most requiring a dismount, push the bike up to the top and peddle down the other side trying not to get stuck in soft sand – Caroline was not having any fun. Russ may have witnessed Caroline throw her bike after one particularly soft ‘hike-a-bike’ section that had her really frustrated – though no photos or video of the incident. I sent a quick message and arranged for a surprise call from a couple of Caroline’s friends at lunch time to lift her spirits. In Caroline’s words… “Re-energised, I attacked the dunes with more determination, even taking a gamble and riding between the wheel tracks where it was often harder.” The gamble worked for a bit, but unfortunately resulted in a flat from the completely evil looking thorns…. WAY more pointy bits than the old doublegee’s!! – we may have later termed them the prickly landmines. A tube change was required with assistance from the crew and lunch was called. With Caroline’s hand not quite strong enough to deal with tyre changes and my right arm not much use yet either, we are pondering how to manage this once Russell and Matt head home. Starting off again, Caroline managed to fall over on the very first dune and impaled her bum with a huge prickly landmine – ouch! Russ ran up the dune to check on her and ever the gentleman offered to remove said thorns, leaving Caroline with a blood stain on her knicks (and a small bruise we discovered later).
With tyre pressure lowered further, Caroline was on the go again. We saw a couple vehicles approaching over the dunes ahead and radio contact advised it was two vehicles with the second under tow. We cleared off the track to let them roll slowly through and wished them all the best. As the light dimmed, Caroline paused to change to clear glasses and add another warm top before being illuminate again by Russ for the last leg in to camp, pulling up at 5:30pm about 7km west of Walkandi Junction – another long tough day of riding. We are now almost a day behind schedule and starting to think about what we can do to save time in the next week in order to connect in time with our next support crew change. Caroline is getting fatigued from so many hard days on sand with very high calorie burn that’s hard to replace daily. The lamb curry, rice and cinnamon damper for dinner tonight sure helped!! We’ll continue to ponder over the next day or two…
Day 57 (June 20th) – Another day of being out of bed in the dark, breathing steam in the cold morning air. Coffee in hand to see the sun rise in this amazing landscape, we are aiming to have Caroline underway a bit earlier. More time on the bike seems the best way to get more km’s done. Underway before 8am, the first 10km behind us in less than an hour, we turned north at Walkandi Junction along a flatter, firmer track in the swale between the dunes. Next stop was the lone gum tree – which is really a Coolibah (box) tree – before the right turn at the junction with the Erabena Track, seeing us head east again.
We do love going east, but it means crossing more dunes in this area. At our lunch stop we finally got to meet ‘Southern Hairy Nose Wombat’ (as distinct from our very own ‘East Coast Wombat’ – aka Russell – you have to get creative with call signs out here), Mick and their partners who had been tailing us for a couple days. They had joked they were going so slow they’d never catch the pushbike! Finishing a 25km straight run east, we came across a dried salt pan and were caught by 3 old army jeeps – yes M.A.S.H. style. Such a unique and cool spot deserved some drone footage and after I managed to only capture 2sec of video on the first pass, Caroline rode halfway back across for ‘take 2’.
We topped the dune on the other side of the saltpan to be met by a pair of ‘Disco’s’ and a Lexus that looked like they’d just driven out of the showroom. Since they seemed intent on maintaining radio silence, we had no idea they were coming and know nothing about them or their trip. Pretty unusual out here where almost all vehicles communicate over UHF for their own convoy as well as alerting others to your approximate location to avoid any dune crest surprises. We took a right turn at the Knolls Track intersection continuing on the Rig Road, heading south between the dunes on mostly harder clay road. A dogleg in the road had us gradually climbing before the crest revealed epic views and a huge, smooth downhill into the valley and a flat 10km run to camp. Well, almost flat … as Caroline said “the kilometers won’t peddle themselves” and she toughed it out to finish over 7hrs ride time, for 82km – another hard day’s work. While Lefty (aka. Me, Craig) and The Captain (aka. Matt) were looking for a suitable camp spot, we just had to peek over one last hill as the previous several kms were sparsely vegetated and not particularly flat, and there it was – a flat ‘pan’ with some bushes to break the breeze a bit and tucked down between some dunes. A great spot to roll out the swags, simmer up some butter chicken and feed a hungry, tired Caroline.
Day 58 – The support crew have tired of the staple breaky of oats and rebelled today, putting a can of baked beans in the coals. While prepping for the day, Caroline decided to up the tyre pressure for the promised firmer road, though once the soft stuff reappeared, the pressure was straight back down to 18psi. The track today has lots of twists and turns as we work our way around salt lakes and sand dunes along the last section of the Rig Road. The sand dunes becoming less of an issue – though not gone yet! Seeing sections of what looked like vast salt lakes amazed us all – though we know they are actually tiny in the bigger picture of this landscape. Wombat called over the two-way to say he’d forgotten to get a snack and could we leave something on the track for him to collect on the way through. One Carmen’s Drizzle Dipped bar was duly propped on the side of the track with an arrow made from sticks and lines in the sand to mark it.
We were also intrigued by the changes in the vegetation, sand colour, plant types and many animal and insect tracks, helping us realise that our journey had only given us a small taste of the Simpson Desert and we need to come back. With the sides of the track quite lumpy, Matt finally went ‘off road’ to park for the days lunch stop with a view over the lake… well it would be a lake when it rained, for us it was dust and salt crystals, though the heat shimmer in the distance gave a good mirage of water. Caroline enjoyed the last km to lunch with some fun washouts downhill. The three old army jeeps passed us one last time and we waved to the gents from the historic vehicle restoration group as they continued their day towards Mungeranie roadhouse. Some video from the drone of Caroline riding along the edge of the salt lake after lunch just reinforced how small and isolated we are in this place.
After following the lake edge for 5km or so, we had one big dune to cross before the next lake and another 25km of shoreline track. Caroline finally took the coach’s (yep, my other nickname now) suggestion that harder tyres would be better on this terrain. The dune wasn’t too bad with mostly hard road except the top few meters, but oh did Caroline enjoy the roll down the other side at over 45kph!! Along the lake edge the road was mostly good with the rolled down mud/salt drying smooth and hard, in places like concrete. Another left turn for the last few kms of the Rig Road and the last set of sand dunes and we arrived at Kuncherinna Junction of the Warburton Track / K1 Line. Time to re-inflate the vehicle tyres a bit (from 16psi up to 28 psi) now that we’re done with the sand.
With another hour of daylight left, Caroline was keen to reduce tomorrow’s distance to be sure of her rest day the day after – oh, the motivation! So we turned right, south along the Warburton track for about 9km to another carefully selected camp, for a day’s total of 111km on the bike. Dinner of butter chicken and rum soaked fruit damper with butter and honey near the warm fire was just the ticket, and we sweetened it even further by telling Caroline that there was a small error in my calculations and tomorrow wasn’t going to be as long as we thought!!
Day 59 (June 22nd) – The day started cloudy, windy and cold, then stayed that way. With about 90km to cover today through the flat swales between low dunes and a long flat featureless floodplain there was much incentive to get going, but first we had Caroline’s front tyre to fix. In the sandier country, we had been re-inflating twice a day due to a slow leak; but the harder, rougher road yesterday afternoon had hammered the thorns in deeper and we couldn’t ignore it any longer. The thorns break off and often you can’t see them on the outside of the tyre, so need to feel around the inside to find the little buggers – two of them this time. Once underway, Caroline made good time past Murda Hill (which was barely taller than anything else) and soon enough reached the signs designating the edge of the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve, where a small celebration ensued!
Now we were in floodplain country for the Warburton River. Flat and almost featureless, except for the occasional stand of trees where water sits longer after rain and exposed to the wind – a headwind of course! The vegetation is low, small and sparse, the ground powdery, dried out clay mostly and there were even some small mud puddles left from the last rain event. We stopped for a snack and to look at the old cattle yards before parking for lunch at one of the most boring spots yet – but there was just nothing out there.
A first today, we had a hot cuppa for lunch, which took forever to boil as Russ had parked to optimise the sun angle for battery charging, not to keep the kitchen out of the wind. A few more bends in the road with some of the roughest surfaces we’ve seen lately and Matt and I were driving through the river – still running, but not deep. We wondered if Caroline was going to try and ride it, walk it or hitch a lift across, so set up chairs and waited with camera’s ready! Caroline soon arrived and with her determination to get herself and her bike across the country, she refused any assistance (as before) and not wanting to risk a dunking due to the unknown surface under the water, removed her shoes and socks and waded across.
Turns out it was quite rocky so not riding was a good call. Dried and back in the saddle, there was just a few more bends and we were at the end of the track and the junction with the Birdsville Track. Another celebration – 521km over 7 days since leaving Mt Dare, Caroline had ridden across what we always knew would be the biggest challenge of the trip – the Simpson Desert. With the Birdsville track looking in good shape, we turned left for 10km north, then a 2km ‘driveway’ to Clifton Hills Station – our stop for the night. This is a working property (not a tourist stop) and we are very grateful to the managers for replying to our request many months ago to be able to stop here for a rest day. After introductions, including a couple of very excited children, we were shown to a little house we could stay in. Russ knocked together our planned meal for tonight – a chicken risotto, which ended up being the ‘side’ for some yummy Clifton Hills steak. At this point we heard the rain on the roof, grateful we were inside and not in the camper or swags, and fell asleep wondering if the rain would upset Russell and Matt’s plans for a run along the Birdsville Track and a pub counter lunch tomorrow and/or impact the next stage of our journey.