East to West Australian Outback Jeep Expedition: Part 1
Edge Of The Abyss: A Posse Of Intrepid Adventurers Search For A 50-Year-Old Track Across The Australian Outback.
We knelt beside the fire, collecting the charred remains of a few Coolabah leaves and depositing them into a tin can. There wasn't a soul for miles in any direction, no one to bear witness to our sacrificial act. "We will carry this with us " stated John Eggleston, "this should appease Kudamuckra, the great serpent of the desert." Standing near the crest of a dune that evening, we surveyed our surroundings. To the east, our five Jeeps lay at bay in the waning light. To the west, waves of linear sand ridges traced a thousand meridians from the cardinal points of Earth's poles. We may have been the first humans to set foot on this spot, as the soil beneath our feet was that of the Wangkamadla and Karanguru, aboriginal tribes that are said to have inhabited this land for 40,000 years before the British arrived in 1787. Nomadic and without a written language, their historical record and folklore legends were passed down verbally through generations as dreamtime narratives. The Kudamuckra was one such fable, whipping up the north-south dunes before us with an angry flog of its tail.
This was the Simpson Desert, one of the most desolate and remote regions of the Australian continent. I had crossed the Simpson years earlier, but followed the standard route on the QAA and French Line tracks to Mt. Dare. It was not a simple feat, as the heavily tracked sand is very loose and the distance between fuel sources exceeds the stock capacity of most vehicles. Our coming days, however, would test the fortitude of man, woman, and machine. We had peeled away from the aforementioned path of least resistance and headed north to a place known as Beachcomber, an abandoned oil well left by French Petroleum's oil exploration of 1963. Somewhere to the west in a cascading swell of sand dunes lay the Seven Slot Line, which had not been traversed since John, mate Ian McDonald, and a small posse of friends created it in 1969. John, now in his 80s, said "We will need to be careful, there is nothing between this place and Old Andado Station, and the Kudamuckra awaits." We headed back to my Wrangler JL and turned the key as the sun made its morning debut.
A week earlier we were chasing the surf on a beach near Cape Byron, where the Pacific Ocean first meets the Land Down Under. Our ambition was to retrace John and Ian's east-to-west route to Steep Point, some 3,000 miles to where a vexed Indian Ocean batters Australia's westernmost promontory. With a copy of John's original journal at-hand, this adventure would be more than spinning the odometer and checking boxes. It would be a tribute to the past, the honoring of tradition, and a dedication to the front runners of ends-of-the-earth overland travel. In 1969, John and Ian had begun the tradition of collecting water from the Pacific and, if successful in crossing the continent, depositing it into the Indian Ocean. Taking our cues, we waded into the waves, requested permission from Poseidon, and filled a few bottles. Stowing them safely under the seat, we fired up the engines and turned the wheels west toward Australia's boundless Outback. The BFGoodrich East-West Australia Jeep Expedition had commenced.
Convicts, Kangaroos, and Pub Crawls
Less than 20 years after Lieutenant James Cook's 1770 "discovery" of Australia (he wasn't the first European to witness New Holland), the British rounded up a thousand or so undesirables and shipped them off to the Crown's newest colony. The First Fleet weighed anchor in Botany Bay (near present-day Sydney) and set to work creating the world's most isolated penal institution. It was a prison with few bars or cells, for the environment beyond the camp's boundary could reduce an urbanized man to a desiccated pile of bones before the warden knew he was missing. Upon serving a sentence of hard labor, however, an inmate's status was changed from convict to free man, deemed a respectable colonist, and granted 20 hectares of land. Australia's newest citizens were hearty and adventurous blokes. Akin to bees escaping a flooded hive, they poured into the Outback in search of a new life, settling places like Toowoomba, Chinchilla, and Jandowae. These desperados-turned-drovers learned to wrangle cattle and sheep, turn the soil and raise wheat or sugar cane, and mine for precious metals.
Long before the steam-driven trains arrived, the only means to move products to market was on the many stock routes that began to web the country. One such route, the Diamantina Crossing, lay on the interstate border of Queensland and Northern Territory. The town that sprouted up from the original tax-collector's house became known as Birdsville.
Placed squarely at the confluence of emptiness and oblivion, Birdsville is an oasis in the desert. Back in 1969 it was the last place to source fuel—if they had fuel that week—and still is today. As Ian and John had done 50 years earlier, we pulled in and bellied up to the weathered wooden bar at the Birdsville Hotel. Its cornerstones were laid in 1883, and despite two world wars, acts of God, and the Great Depression, the hotel and pub have operated continuously for nearly 150 years. The town's population dropped to low double digits at times but everyone needs a few coldies at the end of the day. Its aura exudes character and lore. Behind the bar, a peg board displays the stubby holders (koozies) of regular patrons, broad-brim felt hats of long-passed drovers adorn the walls, and if you step behind a particular line on the floor you must shout the bar (buy a round for everyone in sight).
With an estimated 600 miles of sand driving before the next servo (gas station), we had arranged a fuel dump midspan at a remote location. Dave "Emu" Parkinson walked into the pub like Han Solo in the cantina scene from Star Wars. This larger-than-life character, a living legend of the Outback, pulled up a chair and said, "Mate, you need 600 liters and you need it delivered where?" You see, our route to Old Andado is not found on any maps other than a thin-red digital tangent on my Garmin. It passed through aboriginal lands, accessed only with the blessing of the local council. We set a meet time and I gave him GPS coordinates that would put him 85 kilometers up the Colson Track, the only bailout if we had problems. Tossing back the last round of Bundy (rum), we hit the sack. In the morning we would enter the kingdom of the Kudamuckra.
Spinifex, Big Red, and the Geocenter
Big Red, at about 100 feet in height, is the region's tallest sand dune. It is considered Dune #1 of more than a thousand sand ridges that blanket the Simpson. We had planned a short ceremony at the top, but crowds were already gathering for the Big Red Bash music festival and the scene was reminiscent of The Road Warrior but with shiny Land Cruisers, Patrols, and fewer nose piercings. We moved on to Ayer Creek, the region's only tributary of substance, which was at flood stage. The resulting diversion put us 25 kilometers to the north where we set up camp along its banks. John disappeared in the bush, returning with a handful of Coolabah leaves and shared the tale of the desert serpent. We set them ablaze, collected the ash, and prepared for the coming days. The following afternoon we departed the congested QAA and were camped at the edge of a crimson abyss. I recalled an excerpt from John's journal.
"For a moment a wave of fear passed over me, as what we are about to attempt will be the first ever if we succeed. If we don't succeed we may never return." John Eggleston, April 16, 1969.
Spinning the timepiece forward 50 years, I was standing on the crest of a dune near Beachcomber next to the man who had penned these words. Armed only with a compass and rudimentary maps, Ian and John traveled in an era before satellite phones, GPS, suitable tires, or anything that we would consider modern equipment. With a fleet consisting of two new CJ Overlanders and a Sportster, they ventured into the unknown, reliant only on their mechanical skills, instinct of survival, and a knack for dead reckoning. Each vehicle ferried heaps of water, spare parts, basic sundries, bulky video equipment, and 140 gallons of petrol or as Ian stated (a bit of a firecracker), "As much as we could F#% carry."
When I asked John if the desert had changed he said, "It is still very beautiful, more vegetation. The sand will get redder as we move west, more iron, and the dunes will become taller." That night I thought about his journal entry. The track ahead, the Seven Slot Line, had only been traversed once and long been expunged by the winds of time. We had modern Jeeps, tough-as-nails KM3 tires, Warn winches, a sat phone, and GPS. However, help, if needed, would be days away.
John and I were up before dawn, stoking the fire and prepping the billy for morning coffee—tea, that is, if you are a descendant of the Crown's ex-cons. Old Andado lay 300 kilometers to the west, and we'd need to cover 50 each day to stay on schedule. Before the sun crested the eastern skyline, we were bouncing through thick clumps of spinifex, a fine, hair-like shrub that tends to clog radiators and choke air filters. Although the pace was painfully slow, this would be a test of patience and endurance. Our only mandate before reaching Old Andado was locating the Simpson's geographic center, referred to as the geocenter.
With the compass needle pointed due west we pushed hard each day, running from the sun in the morning and chasing it toward the horizon in the afternoon. Circling the wagons at civil twilight, the entire crew scrambled to collect enough firewood to get us through the chilly winter nights. An important element of any well-orchestrated expedition is that everyone must have a defined job to do. Rick P w , Alan McMullen, and Michael Bowen maintained the vehicles, checking fluids, torqueing lug nuts, and cleaning air filters and radiators each night. Karen McMullen, with the aid of Sue Mead, was our camp chef and managed provisions. Ben Davidson and Paul Graham handled equipment, Vaughn Becker was our historian, while octogenarians Ian and John kept us entertained with campfire yarns of days gone by. My duties were navigation, fuel management, and general grunt.
Finding the seldom-visited geocenter was a milestone, as the Wrangler JL I had borrowed from Jeep Konection was the first JL to reach this place. There was little time for celebration, however, as the days were melding together and we had a date with three barrels of fuel and a dude named after a six-foot bird.
We lost count of the sand dunes somewhere around the 200th, maybe 250th. The relentless high-rpm climbs were wreaking havoc on our fuel gauges. Most of the Jeeps were fitted with auxiliary cells from Long Range Automotive, but Paul Graham's JK was carrying our water supply (280 liters) and Rick's TJ was just flat thirsty. As we neared the meet point, at the crest of each dune we scanned the horizon for Emu and called out on the UHF radio. I'd calculated consumption, which was running between 3.3 mpg (Rick's TJ) and 4.96 mpg (the JL)—there was no chance we'd reach Andado without a top-off. Plan B, if we did not find Emu, was to consolidate all remaining fuel into two vehicles and send them to back to Birdsville or down to Mt. Dare, 300 kilometers either direction. Clearing what seemed like the millionth sand ridge, the Colson Track came into view. I strained my eyes looking north and south. No one in sight.