So there we were, on Knolls Track about 230km from Birdsville, with a dead Toyota FJ40 LandCruiser. One minute it had been purring like a pussycat, the next it had gone completely silent.
We’d already had a few minor mechanical issues with some of the vehicles, as well as a couple of more serious ones with the tucker trailer. The FJ40 had faltered several times when negotiating water crossings, but all we had to do was dry out the electrics and she’d fire up straight away.
This time, however, there was no water, so David Cox, Mark Lowry, Fred Williams and Chris Collard – and anyone else claiming a modicum of mechanical knowledge – poked their heads under the bonnet and searched in vain for the culprit. The multimeter showed that no power was coming out of the coil, and this was one spare part we weren’t carrying, so after a couple of hours of failing to get the Cruiser fired up we ran a strap from the back of the Defender and started the 15km haul up Knolls Track to the junction with the French Line.
Somewhere along the way Fred called over the UHF and asked us to stop; he had managed to get the 40 Series going, which suggested it had an intermittent electrical fault of some kind, and the Cruiser made it to Approdinna Attora Knolls by about 10.30am under its own steam. Oh, and the sun was out, so things were really looking up.
We spent a bit of time ascending the Knolls and having a walk around. These outcrops were formed by gypsum swept off the local salt lakes to form high dunes, and they are described as “rare and extremely fragile land formations” which offer a good view of the surrounding area. We still had 40km or so to travel along the French Line to Poeppel Corner so, with plenty of sand dunes to crest now that we were again heading west to east, and with the potential for some boggy salt lakes ahead – as well as the ever-present possibility of more mechanical problems – we pressed on.
As expected, there were a few very boggy sections on the way to Poeppel Corner, and David Cox suggested we stick to the tracks already formed by vehicles that had previously traversed these soft and slippery salt lakes. His reasoning was that they had already broken through the soft surface to a firmer base below where our tyres would have a chance at gaining some much-needed traction. This technique proved successful… until the tucker truck’s trailer ran out of ground clearance.
We put a snatch strap on the back of the Defender and pulled Dave and the BT-50 tucker truck/trailer combo out of the bog, making sure we got plenty of photos of the recovery for all the Landy fans out there. It was already 1.30pm and at this rate we’d definitely be having another late lunch.
THE LONG HAUL
WE arrived at Poeppel Corner at 2.30pm. Well, most of us did. When Fred and Chris eventually showed up some time later, once again at the end of a tow strap, the poor little 40 Series we’d earlier dubbed ‘Peppa Pig’ was covered in mud. Mark Lowry had successfully towed the boys to Poeppel Corner behind the 79 Series through all of that mud, and we still had 160km ahead of us if we wanted to enjoy a cold beer and warm bed at the Birdsville Hotel later that night.
We decided to split the convoy at this point; most of us would press on to try to reach Birdsville at a reasonable hour, while David Cox and Vicki Lennox would hang back in the tucker truck to make sure Mark (in the 79) didn’t get into any strife trying to tow Fred and Chris (in the 40) across the soggy, muddy desert.
We headed north on the K1 Line and had successfully crossed the big salt lake at the start of the QAA Line by 4pm. The overcast sky that had kept us company for much of the day now made way for a cloudless blue sky as we headed towards Birdsville with the sun in our mirrors. While the track glowed a bright red, the rest of the desert was a lush green; I had never before seen it bursting with so much vegetation.
We still had a long way to go when the sun dropped below the horizon. As our driving lights lit up the dark track, a near-full moon popped over the cloudy eastern horizon, putting on a spectacular light show. Driving through the green desert at night was quite surreal, and somewhat difficult when we had to tackle several long boggy and wet sections; split-second navigation decisions meant the difference between easily forging though some sloppy mud or running out of ground clearance and coming to a halt, needing a snatch from another vehicle to get going again.
Then, about four sand dunes short of Big Red – the final and largest dune we would have to conquer before the home run into Birdsville – the Defender’s lights started to flicker… then the UHF went dead and the dash lights gave out.
The first thought to come to mind was: “Joseph Lucas, Prince of Darkness”. With no headlights at all, we closely mimicked the movements of the vehicle ahead of us and made use of the light emanating from the vehicle behind us, but then I managed to stall the Defender and was unable to fire it up again. We had been through a hell of a lot of mud so we grabbed a 20L water jerry out of the back and poured it over the alternator and hoped for the best. After a successful push start the dash lights came back on, immediately followed by the headlights and driving lights. We had charge!
We encountered a few more very challenging water crossings before we had the three surviving Off Road Icons lined up at the base of Big Red. Wes Siler had the first crack in the GQ Patrol – and the second and the third – but without success. Then Sam Purcell had a go in the LN106 Hilux, again without success. I made sure the Defender was in low-range and headed off, building up speed in second gear and hitting third before starting the climb. As speed washed off on the incline, I shifted it back into second and then, just before the revs dropped too far, I did a quick downshift into first and the Defender slowly crested Big Red. We had made it across the Simpson Desert in a creaky 20-year-old Landy!
After dropping tyre pressures a bit more, the other two Icons also successfully completed their desert crossing, as did the new Hilux and Ranger that were accompanying us, and now we just had an “easy” 35km drive into Birdsville. Yeah, easy… except for the water covering long sections of the road, which occasionally hid some deep washaways.
It was 10.30pm by the time we made it to the Birdsville Hotel. We’d called ahead on the sat-phone so the kitchen staff had set aside our meals, which we woofed down with icy cold beers while wondering how the other half of our party was travelling. We kept an ear out for them on the hotel’s UHF but there were no responses to our calls. We were becoming increasingly worried and by 1am we decided to head back into the night to see what was going on. Sam Boden, Patrick and I jumped in the new Hilux and headed west.
Just a few kays short of Big Red we heard laughter on the UHF; the rest of our crew had just made it over the last of the Simpson Desert’s 1100-odd dunes and they had one hell of a story to tell us all when they arrived at Birdsville at 2.30am, looking muddy, hungry and dog-tired.
NOT surprisingly we all slept bloody well that night. The following morning we set the swags up in the hotel’s carpark to dry them out, then we set off to wash the vehicles so we could ferry those that needed mechanical attention over to Barnsey at the Birdsville Roadhouse.
David Cox already had the trailer over there, with the axle removed and on the press to straighten it out. The 79 Series was soon on the hoist so that Barnsey could access the alternator to rebuild it, while the 40 Series was sitting out the front of the workshop waiting its turn.
Once the alternator was back in the 79 Barnsey had a look at the 40, locating a loose wire at the back of the distributor that appeared to be the culprit. We weren’t too sure, however, that this would resolve the issue, as we’d removed and retightened just about every 40-year-old wire we could locate when the engine first died. Nevertheless, the big petrol-six had now fired up and the battery was charging. Fingers crossed we wouldn’t have any more problems with it.
Once all the vehicles and the trailer had been sorted, we fuelled up and had a bite to eat at the Birdsville Bakery. The crook weather throughout the tourist season had proved hard on many Birdsville businesses, and the bakery was set to shut early this year due to a lack of customers, so we were lucky to score a pie.
That afternoon we headed back out to Big Red for a play on the sand dunes and to do some photography. Michael Ellem reckons Big Red is his “favourite place in the whole world”, and he couldn’t wait to get out there to grab some shots. Of course, he wanted to shoot the sunset, so that evening we had another nighttime drive back to Birdsville along the partially submerged road.
A CHANGE OF PLAN
WITH all of the rain that Central Australia had copped over the past few days, many of the roads and tracks that we’d intended on travelling over the next week were closed. And despite the beautiful blue-sky day we had just experienced, more rain was predicted that evening, including in Birdsville. We thought we might even be stranded here for a while.
Our initial route from Birdsville would have seen us travel to Cordillo Downs, Coongie Lakes, Innamincka, Burke’s Grave, the Burke and Wills Dig Tree, Cameron Corner, Tibooburra, Milparinka, Packsaddle, Silverton, Eldee Station and then on to Broken Hill, but with most of the roads in the Corner Country closed we had to come up with a Plan B.
Plan B was to head down the Birdsville Track to Mungerannie, then spend a couple of nights at Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges so we could have a drive around Willow Springs. We would then head down to Hawker and along some backroads to Waukaringa Ruins before joining the Barrier Highway for the final drive into Broken Hill.
Sure, we’d miss out on some spectacular destinations, but Plan B would offer a great alternative, with plenty of beautiful country and some great driving.
Stay tuned for part 3 of our ARB off-road icons trip across the Simpson Desert.
Need a refresher on our journey so far? Check out Part 1 of the ARB Off-Road Icons trip.