THE FOOTSTEPS OF MADIGAN
(This Expedition was undertaken nearly 30 years ago about the time that the first GPS units were available to the public. It was probably the first crossing on the “Madigan Line” since CT Madigan’s camel expedition. The Madigan Line is now a well blazed albeit very tough track for adventurous four wheel drivers – Author’s note)
The logistics are daunting. About 800 kms from Mt. Dare to Birdsville of which over half would be through the vast dunal system of the Simpson Desert. Why would we attempt such an expedition?
“From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right we saw the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour, and a bright narrow line of it marked the top of each ridge, amidst the sickly pink and glaucous coloured vegetation around.”
These were the first words written about the Simpson Desert by Sturt in 1845 when he reached, and was turned back, by the southern edge of the desert. The description is as accurate today as it was then, and although accurate, to my mind was a somewhat jaundiced view generated no doubt by the privations suffered by all earlier explorers of that inhospitable region.
The Simpson Desert sits almost astride the centre of Australia, the driest continent on earth if Antartica is excluded. This desert is one of the last unexplored places on this globe, fewer people have been to its geographic centre than have been to the South Pole. It has one of the largest parallel sand dune systems in the world, in area some 146,000 square kilometres. This area does not include the salt lake systems to the south (Lake Eyre) nor the gibber deserts to the east and west. By comparison the Quatara Depression in the Sahara is a mere 18,000 square kilometres. The dunal system runs unbroken for 500 kms north to south and is on average 350 kms wide, with the highest dunes reaching 50 metres from trough to crest. A host of central Australian river systems enter the desert and disappear beneath its sands; these include the Finke, the Todd
and the Hale from the west, the Ilogwa, the Plenty and the Hay from the north and the Mulligan and Eyre from the east.
There are of course no recorded rainfall figures for the Desert proper. It is probably in the region of 1 to 2 inches a year (25 to 50 mm).Surprisingly, the Desert is relatively well vegetated, with many interdunal flats containing good stands of gidgee, corkwood and acacia trees albeit of somewhat stunted stature. Saltbush and spinifex provide some ground cover and, after rain, the wild flowers proliferate in psychedelic abandon. It is one of the most beautiful places left on this planet, a haunting beauty that is as colourful as the most exotic tropical orchid yet as serene as the deepest forest glade.
While the Desert was first “discovered” by Sturt in 1845, it would be nearly a century before the Desert proper would be crossed. Lindsay crossed the southern edge in 1885 and Colsen a bit further north in 1936. In 1939 Dr. C.T.Madigan led a successful expedition by camel across the central Simpson very close to the geographic centre. In fact, the Desert was first named the Simpson by Madigan in 1929 during an earlier exploratory trip, after A.A.Simpson, President of the South Australian Royal Geographic Society.
This then was to be the route that we would follow, our vehicles following in the footsteps of Madigan.
Two years planning had gone into the trip preparation. The vehicles had been modified to suit the expected conditions, with the major modifications being locking diffs and uprated suspensions. Additional room had to be found in each vehicle for 270 litres of petrol, 80 litres of water, food for 14 days together with a myriad of spare parts which included additional spare tyres, welding equipment, towing straps and radios. Each vehicle was fitted with a CB radio for interconvoy communication and one vehicle had the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) radio for HF communication should an emergency occur. These sandhills would be the toughest we had ever attempted and experience had taught us how important it was to keep the weight down; if the cars were too heavy we just would not make it, or worse, we would break something irrepairable and have to abandon the vehicle. It would be impossible to tow a vehicle in that awful terrain so recovery by towing from the Desert is impossible. One of the most important items carried was the GPS navigation system. We were determined to find a tree blazed by Madigan in 1939, and the GPS would put us fairly close to it. Madigan had given an astral fix of the position of the tree but
of course we could not hope that his positioning would be anywhere near as good as the GPS ; we thought that he should have had an error of not more than a mile. There are not too many trees out there so we believed we could find it with a bit of luck.
It was a Sunday in Birsville. Warm and pleasant with a gentle breeze fanning the spark of excitement amongst the gathered drivers and the friends or family accompanying them. The vehicles had just been fueled for the westward trip to Mt. Dare, a trip that would give the less experienced a taste of what was to come and a trip that would test the vehicles abilities for their return across the “Madigan”. A short sojourn for photos and the convoy was off to the first hurdle, the crossing of “Big Red”. Some 40 kms west of Birdsville you enter the sand hill country proper and this entry is marked by one of the largest sandhills in the desert, Big Red. These days this gargantuan sandhill is almost a tourist stop with visitors driving out to gaze awestruck at the red giant towering out of the gibber plains. Big Red is a challenge for any vehicle, even more so when fully laden and on their way west.
It takes us a couple of hours to get all the vehicles over. The sand is soft, and loose wind blown sand has covered the track. Most of the petrol vehicles make it over and once we have one over it is only a matter of towing the rest over, if you have a long enough tow strap. We have come prepared and the straps will reach out the 50 metres or so that we need. The diesel vehicles do not even go close to making it, an inauspicious start since one of the them will be coming on the Madigan. The sandhills get smaller as we head westward and the driving skills of the lesser experienced improve day by day which is a heartening sign. The tow straps are now rarely needed and the next few days pass pleasantly as we wind our way across the western fringe of the desert to Mt. Dare.
We have sampled the delights of Witjira National Park on previous trips so our stay at Mt.Dare is brief, a little more than an hour or so as we fuel up, top up with water and make last minute adjustments for the daunting prospect ahead. This is our last contact with civilisation, albeit a tiny and remote contact, before we reach Birdsville some 800 kms and 1000 sandhills to the east. Our camp that night is beside a station track which heads north from Mt. Dare to our jump off point North Bore. We are still in marginal cattle country and, while the station tracks are rough and slow, they are tracks which is more than we will get after North Bore. The next morning we push on to North Bore.
The skeletal remains of an old wind mill mark North Bore. It is a lonely sentinel in the middle of a vast gibber plain fringed in the distance by red sandhills which run to the horizon in both directions, we are back in sand hill country. To the north of us, floating above the horizon and shimmering in the midday heat, lies a low range of hills which is the Allitra Tableland and in there lies Fletcher Hill, the point where we turn east. First we must find Poodinittera Hill and then The Twins two small hills near Poodinittera on which Madigan erected a cairn of rocks. The gibber plains of North Bore fall behind us and the country becomes very rough with low mulga scrub, rocky jump ups and wind blown drifts of vivid red sand. Over the next sand blow we surprise a small group of camels who scatter in all directions at our approach. Wild camels are plentiful in the Simpson although you have to be alert to spot them ; they are, believe it or not, extremely adept at merging to invisibility in what little cover is available. Occasionally you can catch them in open country or like today surprise them.
Our next navigation check point is Loafers Dam, a dam abandoned back to the desert many years ago. We begin to realise just how useful the GPS is going to be. We are struggling along the edge of the Tableland hemmed in by jagged rocky outcrops and dense mulga scrub and know that we must be close to Loafers. The GPS tells us that it is about two kms away North by North West. We have to make a detour to get down the escarpment but there it is exactly where it should be. The next 25 kms to the Twins is across open plain skirting the western edge of the hills which only takes us an hour or so compared to the previous 25 kms which took half a day.
We stand atop The Twins beside the cairn erected by Madigan. A few tobacco tins containing scraps of paper bear mute testimony to others who have stood on this spot and paid tribute to Madigan. Perhaps a few dozen in total have stood here and yet this stark and isolated pinnacle merely marks the start. Even fewer have continued further. We now understand how Madigan felt as he stood and gazed out over this sweeping and awesome desert that stretched to the horizon, unbroken, in front of him. The sun is setting and the sandstones of Poodinitterra to our south flame crimson in its dying rays. Almost due north of us and about 15 kms away as the crow flies, we can see Fletcher Hill. This is a truly enchanted spot. The Todd and Hale Rivers meet almost at our feet, merge and disappear into the desert sands off to our south east. Of course the rivers here may only flow once in a lifetime, but their course between the sand ridges is clearly marked by the growth of ghost gums and thick scrub which stands out as a dash of green in the red sea of sandhills. Another day has gone and tomorrow we go east.
Our camp that evening is on a small clay pan nestled amongst the ghost gums between the sand ridges. The next morning the air is cool and crisp with just a suggestion of the warm day to follow. It is late spring with cool nights and days that hint at the blistering summer days to follow in a few months. The sand ridges across to Fletcher Hill are relatively small and the biggest hazard is finding a way through the dense bush in the many channels of the Todd and the Hale. By mid morning we are at Fletcher Hill and turn due east. The dunal system in the Simpson runs a few degrees east of north/south so that from here on we must cut across the ridges at right angles with two or three to cross in every kilometer. The country is still heavily vegetated with stunted gidgee and corkwood trees together with the ubiquitous spinifex. The corkwood and gidgee struggle up to be about three metres high at most and we must pick our path between them while maintaining our heading of due east. The clumps of spinifex dot the dunes and interdunal flats, their sharp spikes are not only painful to brush against but also a major threat to our vehicles’ tyres. The spinifex spines will penetrate the tyres, snap off and work their way right through the tread or wall resulting in a puncture. The spinifex is too plentiful to be able to drive around the clumps and so we have resigned ourselves to the daily chore of multiple tyre repairs.
The sand hills here glow with the blood red colour that typifies most of the Simpson. It has been a good year and some rain has fallen over winter. The corkwood is in bloom as is the kalikarimpa or honey grevillea. The bright yellow blooms of the corkwood contrast with the orange blossoms of the kalikarimpa and up close they both have a light and ethereal perfume. Frequently we come across patches of wild flowers usually in the dips on the dune crests. These tiny flowers blaze with colour against the backdrop of red sand and their delicate beauty counterpoints the grandeur and majesty of the surrounding desert. In the late afternoon with the sun directly behind us, we climb from valleys steeped in shadow up to the blazing red crests of the dune and there are greeted by endless crimson waves of dune after dune stretching to the horizon.
That evening we have reached a somewhat congenial spot, at least by desert standards. It is a small stand of scattered gidgees which represents the last gasp of Ilogwa Creek before it disappears completely beneath the whispering sands. Of course, water would never flow here but, after a flood in the head waters, enough moisture must creep along a subterranean path to keep the gidgee alive. The GPS has told us exactly where we are, and it also tells us that after ten hours of driving we have covered 40 kms We have also used over 30 litres of petrol each, about one and a quarter kms to the litre. The driving has been incredibly tough in second or third low for the day. We probably average 8 kms an hour when we are moving but sometimes we will be stuck on a sand hill for half an hour or more as we try, often seemingly in vain, to find a way over. It has been brought very forcibly home to us that we could not have turned back even after a few hours driving. Some of the larger dunes have had close to vertical slopes on the eastern side which while somewhat hair raising, are easy enough to drive down. To drive up them would be out of the question given the trouble we are having with the much gentler western slope. We must continue westward and, if we have trouble, hope that we can escape by going north or south parallel to the dunes.
Our mood around the campfire that evening is subdued as we realise we are now fully committed. The task ahead is entirely up to us, no one can come to our aid should there be trouble over the next dune. The majestic stillness of the desert night settles around us and we sink into insignificance beneath the blaze of stars, stars that do not twinkle but shine steadfast and bright in the clear desert air. Perhaps it is just physical tiredness but our trepidations, anxieties and excitement seep away with sleep into the endless calm of the desert.
By 11 o’clock each morning the sand has warmed up and the dunes become particularly difficult. As the sand warms the air trapped between the grains expands and the sand becomes softer and lighter and the dunes increasingly more difficult to climb.We are thankful that the days are still mild but even so both cars and people are called upon to work their hardest in the heat of the day increasing both the petrol consumption for the cars and water consumption for their crews. As the morning progresses we fall into a routine ; if we cannot get straight over the dune we split up and go off to the south and north looking for a crossing point. When one is found we then all struggle over or because each succeeding car has more trouble in the sand loosened by the car in front, the leading cars may have to tow those following over. Occasionally someone gets very stuck and then we must either dig or tow them out backwards and try again.
Some of the highest dunes are particularly vicious. Most of the bigger dunes seem to be what we have called “double dippers” with the very crest of the dune having a hollow in it up to 20 feet deep. This means in effect that the dune has two crests and since we barely make the first crest, we have no chance of a run at the second crest. Furthermore if you do make the mistake of getting caught in the dip, then it is very difficult to get another vehicle into position to tow you out. The elastic “snatchem” straps help but usually it requires connecting sufficient tow straps together so that the bogged vehicle can be towed by a vehicle going down either the east or west face of the dune. The sand is much too soft to successfully tow unless the towing vehicle is moving downhill.
Even then we sometimes bog the tow vehicle on the downhill slope. By that time the tow strap is stretched tight and cannot be removed so that the tow vehicle can not go forward against the stretched strap, nor can it back up the steep slope to get the strap off. On these occasions two or three vehicles are required in tandem to dislodge the original car. All of this activity requires much digging, pushing and many return trudges up and down the dune all of which is energy sapping and time consuming.
Another day has passed and we have come about the same distance as yesterday, if anything a bit less. The sandhills are gradually increasing in size and so are becoming harder but they are now further apart so that the going in between is a bit better. No gidgee covered claypan for tonight’s camp, just the most level and spinifex free area we can find on one of the interdunal flats. We have settled into the swing of desert driving and despite the sore muscles we are pleasantly relaxed. Storm clouds pile up in the evening sky but we know the chances of rain are remote. Indeed anything but very heavy rain would be welcome since this would damp the sand and produce firm easy driving. The sunset, with glowering black clouds amid the red aurora of the sandhills, is a spectacular reminder of how beautiful the desert can be. Tomorrow we may reach Camp 11 significant to Madigan and to us since it marks the middle of the crossing.
The evening clouds have vanished overnight and we break camp for an early start. Once more we throw ourselves at the sandhills blocking our path and one by one we struggle over them. We try very hard not to push the vehicles to their limit and thus tempt fate and break something irrepairable. The problems of vehicle recovery should this occur are appalling. It would simply not be possible to tow even south or north between the dunes. The only possibility would be to have the necessary part either dropped by a chartered aircraft or for the remaining vehicles to drive out, get the pieces required, and return, they would of course have to return by going around the desert and coming in again from the west. Both alternatives seem too grim to contemplate.
On occasions we see a camel silhouetted atop a sandhill in the distance. Our slow and noisy progress gives them plenty of opportunity to keep well away from us and we have little chance of surprising them. There is some bird life in isolated patches but it is unclear if any water is close, we see no finches the most positive sign of water and so we can only assume that despite the good seasons in recent years there is no ground water anywhere near. Nor are there any eagles or hawks floating above despite the abundance of lizards and goannas. Each bearded dragon or sand goanna gives the kids an opportunity to test their catching skills, the dragons are easy but the goannas are incredibly fast and impossible to catch unless they can be cornered up a tree. We also see now and then a hopping mouse, a rare and timid marsupial desert dweller.
Late that afternoon the GPS tells us that Camp 11 must be very close and sure enough over the next sand hill we spot the small clay pan described by Madigan in his journal. The clay pan is about 50 metres across and nestled against the western edge of a dune. We are here at last half way between the western and eastern edges of the desert, our journey is half completed. It was here in 1939 that Madigan found surface water and feed for the camels just as he was on the point of turning back in despair. We stand where very few have stood and begin to understand how Madigan the first European to stand here had felt.
Surprisingly, the clay pan has scattered around it many stone flakes, clear evidence that Aboriginals in the past have paused here and made stone tools. It is also apparent that the stone did not originate in the area so had been carried to what must have been a camp site. We are very close to the centre of the desert so either the camp site was only used during seasons when water was abundant or there were well sites near by. We move on over a few more dunes to the east and find a congenial camp site amongst the gidgees on a somewhat bigger clay pan. We have reached the southern extremity of the flood-out from the Plenty River and after two days welcome the sight of the friendly gidgees. As at Camp 11 there is ample evidence of previous occupation by Aboriginals with numerous small piles of stone flakes. Stone tools were manufactured by working hard flakey rock to produce an axe, spear head or cutting tool and the flakes are the pieces struck off during this process. This desert is one of the oldest places on the planet and what stone there is has been rounded by countless centuries of weathering, nothing is sharp in the desert unless man made. Of course the flakes may have been forty years old or four hundred or four thousand, it is beyond our ability to tell. All they tell us is that we are not the first people here.
Sleep that night came slowly. Perhaps it was the realisation that we were now on the way out of the desert rather than on the way in. Perhaps it was the gidgees whispering as they remembered a duskier people camped in their care. Or perhaps it was just the click of music sticks and the stamp of feet that I fancied I heard in the distance.
The following day we were soon out of the somewhat better vegetated area of the dying Plenty and into the most desolate region encountered so far. The sand hills were once again getting smaller but the country was rougher and more sparse than any before. The sand was very loose and we struggled to our daily 40 kms only by driving an extra hour that evening. The vehicles became stuck one after another and the tow straps and shackles were now carried by the co-driver ready for their frequent use. One sand hill thwarted our efforts for nearly an hour until we began to despair of being able to cross. We were kept going in the knowledge that with any luck we would reach the Hay River the next day.
That evening we understood far better how Madigan had felt. We were very tired from the hard physical labour of the day, and we had driven not walked as Madigan had. This day we had stretched our vehicles far more than previously and we wondered how long they could take this punishment. Like Madigan’s camels they were our lifeline to safety. All the cars were going well with only minor problems, but how long could they keep going day after day in low range and being pushed hard? Tomorrow perhaps it would be easier.
And there it was the Hay at last. Not that there was any water in the Hay, but it did have a reasonably well defined channel so perhaps once or twice a decade water did creep down this far into the desert. What it did have was box gums and coolibah trees, the first we had seen since leaving the Hale floodout on the western edge of the desert. True they did not struggle up more than thirty feet high, but that was considerably taller than the occasional stand of gidgee and corkwood to which we had become accustomed. There was also considerable bird life with the trees ablaze with countless green budgerigars and watchful wedgetail eagles floating overhead. Somewhere in here was the M Tree blazed by Madiagn in 1939. About a mile to the north of where we met the Hay and precisely where it should have been stood the M Tree. We compared it to a photograph taken by Madigan when he blazed the tree and could find almost no difference apart from the blaze being now largely grown over. The tree does not appear to have grown at all in the last forty years. It remains as Madigan described it;
“I blazed a gumtree in the river at this camp, Camp 16, on the largest tree we could find, which was only about a foot in diameter. After removing the bark half way round I cut M39 into the wood with a chisel in the conventional way. I would be interested to know who next sees this tree.”
It was a festive occasion that evening as we viewed with some satisfaction our success, sobered only by the thought that we still had two days travel across open desert to reach a station track that led south to Birdsville. We had reached our main objective, the M Tree. It was still not going to be easy, we were short of fuel and the punishment handed out to the vehicles was beginning to take its toll. Nothing major as yet, just small things like radiator hoses and dirty fuel. And we were beginning to be plagued by punctures. We had set off prepared for the daily routine of tyre repair but it was only now that the punctures were becoming regular occurrences. We were also looking forward to reaching Kuddaree Water Hole, a permanent water hole in the channels of the Mulligan on the eastern extremity of the desert. The thought of a bath was bliss after more than a week of careful rationing and no water to spare for such human comforts.
The morning dawned clear and still and cool enough to sit around the fire drinking the first cup of tea of the day. It was a reflective time, the sand hills glowed sanguinely as the first rays of the sun broke through the picaninny dawn. It was time to break camp and move on. The first 25 kms south along the course of the Hay between the dunes takes us less than an hour including a stop to repair a puncture. As we turn east we realise that the desert is not going to give us up that easily. The dunes are as large as any we have encountered and as tough as ever, but the interdunal flats are easier with numerous gidgees and frequent clay pans. The dunes are building up to the awesome majesty of Big Red but the somewhat better run up means that they are giving us no more trouble than their smaller cousins to the west. We are now also considerably lighter with much of our fuel and water gone and this helps in our stuggles over the crests.
We begin to encounter salt lakes which are the flood outs of the Mulligan. Rising in western Queensland, the Mulligan runs sufficiently frequently, once every five years or so, to flood these lakes. Within a few months the water, which may have only been inches deep, evaporates and deposits yet another layer of salt. The salt lakes are welcome because they are somewhat easier to drive on despite the heavy going. There has been rain the year before last and the vehicles break through the first two or three inches of salt crust. It is somewhat akin to driving in thick mud but the lakes are smooth and the smooth ride is heaven. Dusk has fallen and we push on through the gloom. Kuddaree is less than five kms away but we are going to have to do the last bit in the dark, something that simply would not be possible without the GPS. There is no moon and it is now pitch black beyond the reach of our lights. It is an eerie feeling bumping across the now small sand hills with only the map, compass and GPS directing us. Suddenly the radio crackles into life as the lead vehicle tells all excitedly that they have stopped at water. It is Kuddaree. We have navigated across the desert for ten days by GPS and found in the dark a water hole a kilometer long!
All are tired, very tired, and we can barely keep awake for the congratulatory drinks on our landfall - or perhaps in this case more appropriately our “waterfall”. It will be a rest day tomorrow so perhaps we can all blissfully sleep in. We are rudely awoken at first light by the corellas celebrating in noisy abandon the new day, and joined in chorus by galahs and sulphur crested cockatoos. The dawn gleams on the water broken only by the ripples from cruising pelicans and ducks. It is hard to believe that perhaps by next year this ephemeral oasis will have succumbed to the desert and the abundant bird life moved on.
The rest of the day passes quietly and peacefully. The following morning we drive the 100 kms down to Birdsville. For the last 60 kms we follow Big Red now on our western side. Big Red somehow now seems benevolent as it guides us majestically towards Birdsville and it is with some sorrow that we finally turn east and it falls away behind us as we move into Birdsville.
Our adventure is over. We have followed the footsteps of Madigan. We have been where few have ever been. We have tested ourselves to the very edge. The ancient soul of this land has been uncovered to us. And the desert has reached out and claimed us forever.