Record-breaking attempt to run across the Simpson Desert

Simpson Desert run john howe

Originally published in June 2013 issue of 4X4 Australia

READERS of this magazine would no doubt sit up with peaked enthusiasm when asked if they wanted a run to or through the Simpson Desert. But a run across the Simpson Desert – a place that’s been called the Devil’s Sandpit – on foot? Maybe not so enthusiastic now, eh? That’s what John Howe had dreamt about doing for years, and he wanted to do it in record time. He had decided to do it in March, just a few days after the desert re-opened from its summer closure. It’s closed due to the heat, don’t you know? John (33) is an Ultra Runner; someone who enjoys pushing his physical and mental boundaries to cover amazing distances often in extremely tight timeframes.

What this challenge entailed was running the Simpson’s 1100-odd dunes and covering a distance of 379km in less than three days. Non-stop. Of course the Simpson has had its conquerors. The first record run was in 1981 when Ron Grant managed the feat in four days, 11 hours and 44 mins. Pat Farmer almost died in his record-making attempt in December 1996 but set a time of three days, 17 hours 31 minutes and eight seconds, and it was this time that John desperately wanted to break.

Simpsons desert start line

In preparation, John had been training intensively in the Hawkesbury region north-west of Sydney – where he works as an equine dentist – running close to 300km a week. And while that’s a lot of kays, it paled to the challenge of doing more than that non-stop. And on sand. Hot sand.

Toyota Hilux takes on the Simpson Desert

The challenge was a solo one but one that couldn’t be achieved with a solo effort. He had originally contemplated a solo, self-supported run but it was friend Brad Bell that had convinced John he would need a team to support the run with logistics, supplies and, importantly, morale for when things got tough, which they undoubtedly would.

It was the equine world that had introduced a few key people in Hawkesbury, and Brad, owner of Outback Signs and keen four-wheel driver, decided to become involved with helping the cause. Brad put a huge amount of effort and time into the project; developing relationships with sponsors and recruiting other off-roaders to join in the fun (run?). Everything had to be examined; from food and water delivery, to the problems of lighting the way at night. The crew would also need to be able to get along with each other in a challenging environment. Brad assembled a group of people that had all travelled together before.

Nights were spent at a whiteboard setting stage lengths, crew rosters and, most importantly, the best way for the vehicles to escort John in a way that would maintain the non-stop progress of the record attempt. And what of the night stages?

desert run john howe

That little issue was worked out on the Stockton Beach sand dunes. Everyone taking part travelled up to Stockton to work out the plan. The first attempt revealed that the LED light banks courtesy of sponsor Monster Lights would need to be up-sized in order for the vehicles to light John’s path. They were and a second weekend’s training took place. There had to be adequate light to illuminate the track but not to dazzle John. A twisted ankle from not being able to see where he was going would be too silly an occurrence to unravel such a serious undertaking. Eventually it was decided that one vehicle would scout the track ahead, one would trundle along in front of John, far enough forward so as not to churn up dust for him to ingest and the last 4X4 would follow with lights bathing the dark sand in white light. John had a headlight but this on its own would be nowhere near adequate. The same positions it was deemed would work for the daytime sections, too.

It was also dramatically realised that in the event of a 4x4 bogging on a dune, hazard lights were to be displayed rather than an immediate reverse manoeuvre with possibly terrible consequences.

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All the food and water, vitamin supplements and running gear would travel in the second or third vehicle to be ready when called for. The vehicle with the food could either run ahead or unload to the other to allow its preparation time before John caught up for a feed. John wore a harness with water bottles attached to keep hydrated, and they would be replaced as he progressed and emptied them. That last system would encounter a problem that was realised in the desert at the start point, Alka Seltzer Bore. The bore was the spot where Pat Farmer set off in 1996 and is recognised as the right spot to travel 379km, mainly on the French Line, to the Birdsville Hotel and, hopefully, glory.

All up, eight 4x4s were assigned to this epic undertaking and everyone, including Jason Lindsay, the man charged with recording the challenge in pictures and on video, donated their time and efforts for free. Brad duly covered all the vehicles – a Defender, an 80 Series, a 150 and 95 Series Prado, a Navara ST-X 550 and three GU Patrols in the sponsors’ logo stickers he produced at work, and things were getting to the pointy end of proceedings.

4x4 simpson desert

That just left the small matter of moving the convoy to the start point. The team decided to spend a leisurely week touring through the NSW outback and on to Alice Springs where John, his running mates Michael Cox and Ben Pascoe, and I would arrive by plane to join them.

With airport introductions despatched it was a rapid exit to start the journey to Mount Dare for the first night’s camp. A few of the convoy wanted to visit the Lambert’s Geographical Centre of Australia which required a side-trip from the main highway at Finke. Michael and I were riding in Nathan Bell’s Defender when the radio crackled with the call that Shamus Walsh had had an eagle through the windscreen. Not a good start. We’d passed a roo carcass in the centre of the track (we were running up front) and upon hearing the startled transmission returned to find that that roadkill had been the eagle’s launch point into the GU’s screen. It was a big strike right in front of the driver and had damaged to screen to the point that it would have to be replaced. No-one could locate the eagle but it was spotted later by one of the convoy who were returning from the Lambert monument. Still, the carnage allowed Shamus the opportunity to produce a cordless vacuum to remove the splinters and shards that filled his cabin. And he was away to Alice Springs for a new screen barely hours after leaving town.

Desert Travel Daily Vehicle Checks

Since the majority of the convoy had headed straight to Mount Dare and Shamus had left, the Defender pulled in to the campground later than everyone and the station outlet was closed. Once we’d sorted the swags and tents, a huge pasta feed was in order. According to Nathan “these were the meals we used to go out for”. Considering our location, how far out did he want to go? Since I had arrived with no way of carrying supplies the group had offered to feed and water me each day. I’d foolishly made a joke about being the camp dog, forlornly scavenging in search of scraps and mentioned the name Fido. I was going to regret that. Woof.

john howe

The vehicles took on fuel at the Mt Dare bowser in the morning, a fairly leisurely breakfast had been planned but it was decided to crack on considering a reoccurrence of the events of the previous day could potentially slow us down. And a stop at Dalhousie ruins and hot springs were also on the cards. We couldn’t be late to the next night’s camp at Alka Seltzer Bore – the start point – because the run was due to begin at 5am Tuesday morning. We’d need to be well rested and on time.

Lunch at Dalhousie, with me coated in flies more than anyone else – which oddly occurred for the whole trip – further spurred the dog jokes. Most enjoyed the hot springs but, as refreshing as they were, the memory that lingers is of the insane amount of National Park’s wire-rope fencing in the camp area. It was a huge eyesore and a hazard for night-time movements.

Everyone reached Alka Seltzer Bore in the late afternoon with little fanfare. The trumpet calls were reserved for Irishman Shamus and mate Phil who rocked up hot-foot from Alice with a new windscreen around nine o’clock – could he be of the County Cork O’Clocks?. However, prior to that, Brad had gathered us all around his Patrol for a briefing to make sure all knew what to do. Since this was to be a record attempt, an accurate timing method was required for each vehicle so everyone received and synchronised a Casio G-Shock watch. All except the camp dog – who skulked near the box with freeloading journalistic opportunism. He was, however, rewarded with a feed of steak and sangers at the camp kitchen of Ron Optiland and trip paramedic Wayn (no E) Patch – that name’s better than Fido.

simpson desert running convoy

John had been itching to get going, understandably, and was often sat, always in running gear, foot eagerly tapping and looking pensive. Not long to go.

As the camp settled down for the night a lone Cruiser trayback pulled in to the site. It belonged to Cultural Ranger Dean Ah Chee. Dean was to lead John out of Alka Seltzer Bore in the morning as a sign of respect to the Lower Southern Arrernte and Wangkangurru people and as a representative of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Casually adding in the morning that he had “a few star droppers to knock in”.

The day dawned, well, actually it hadn’t dawned at all yet – it was around 3am. The darkness was a hive of activity, though still quiet. Headlights flashed as camps were dismantled, no-one wanted to be tardy. The Defender and a Patrol were positioned either side of the track leading out of the bore and a ‘start’ banner was strung above, affixed on poles to the bullbars. John warmed up, stretched, and looked at his watch while the vehicles readied for their exit onto the French Line. One group, Nathan’s Defender, and two Patrols belonging to Shamus and Ron would let John start and then we’d slowly skirt him and go on ahead to the halfway point at the junction with the Knolls Track – the whole stage was to be around 80km. The idea was that we’d have time to feed and rest before the party following caught up and we’d take over escort duties.

Five o’clock came and John went, the start of the biggest challenge of his life, although a little dustier than he’d anticipated in the wake of Dean’s Cruiser. Dean pulled off the track not much further on and started with the star droppers; we bade our farewells.

john howe running

Blue Mountains Natural Spring Water had donated a large quantity of H2O for the effort, but since you can never be too careful with water supplies the team had stocked up with extra pallets. John had realised at the bore that the new bottles were not compatible with his drink harness so it was vital that the right water was in the correct part of the convoy.

A rhythm settled in with happy chatter across the airwaves on the UHF.

As dawn finally broke, our lead party stopped for photos of the sunrise and breakfast atop a dune. In the first beams of a desert sunrise a sausage and egg sandwich has never looked so good. Except the one I made for Nathan.

As the daylight grew brighter we could clearly see the wheel tracks of Vic Widman’s party who’d passed this way at the start of the desert’s open season. It was odd to note that the sand looking forward was yellow compared to a peek out the back, where it appeared the more expected red. Vegetation was, to this Simpson virgin anyway, abundant.

We arrived at our checkpoint and waited in the heat – and me in the flies – and readied for our stint with John. Around two o’clock the second party arrived. Michael was suited and ready to run with John. I would jump in with Shamus and Phil and we’d travel just ahead of John and Michael, trying to keep them in the rear-view. It’s amazing how strange it was travelling at that kind of pace and as the day wore on we realised it was going to be a long day. That point was not lost on Brad either. He decided to shorten the stage, for us at least. But, still, not until much, much later.

4x4 explore simpson desert

As far as the record was concerned John was around six hours ahead and looking good. He’d some soreness on his hip and unwashed new shirts had caused a little unexpected nipple chafing, however, a toe was heavily strapped that required Wayn to have a look while our roadside café had prepared the request for vegemite on toast and hot drinks for our little party. It was a surreal scene as night-time activities in the desert often appear. Not quite as surreal as they were about to become.

As the last vehicle, behind John, Nathan had been calling on the radio that things were slowing back there. Small breaks were beginning to be taken. To pass the time some of the most inane radio chatter pierced the night sky. Someone joked about what aliens picking up the rubbish might think as we peered into the milky heavens.

It had reached the mind-bending stupidity level as tired brains struggled with fatigue and making sense. We were unaware of the struggle taking place somewhere behind us in the gloom. A call from Nathan summoned Ron and Wayn to attend. It was low-key – Nathan’s sensitive attempt to not raise anyone’s, including John’s, concerns unduly – and as we tried to rest, the boys took off.

What happened next is blurred; we’d been in the Patrol for almost 24 hours when we were called to head on to that night’s camp. Via sat-phone Brad had been summoned back to try to convince John that it was all over! When Wayn had arrived John was in agony with a heart rate in the stratosphere that would have killed you or me. An average resting heartbeat is around 60-70 beats per minute (bpm); as an ultra-fit person John’s is 32. At this point his heart was pacing somewhere north of 200. It had come out of nowhere. John was hardly exerting himself and walking when; “bang, I was on me face” on it came. After two failed attempts to carry on, including one using tent poles to aid walking; Brad had to implore John to stop. This was after two hours’ rest as advised by medic Wayn. The decision was made to head straight to Birdsville and help. Brad took off. We were still a good 250km from Birdsville and so Nathan decided to accompany Brad, a feat that meant by the time they reached Birdsville, Nathan had actually driven across the Simpson Desert non-stop.

sand dune simpson desert

When we awoke at Poeppel Corner we were greeted with the disheartening news. There was nothing left to do but follow on to Birdsville and hope that John would be okay.

We arrived on Thursday to find that he was indeed okay, if in some strong discomfort and a little deflated, as you’d expect. The RFDS had happened to be in Birdsville and were able to thoroughly check John over. The cataclysmic chest pain was deemed a coincidence, not as a result of his efforts. Further tests back in Sydney would hopefully determine the cause because this is one man that hasn’t finished with the Simpson Desert. Even though it, like it did with Pat Farmer, almost seemed like it had him finished.

Over a light dinner at the Birdsville Hotel, John told us that Ultra Runners are selfish people, it’s a selfish sport. You spend huge amounts of time on your own; racing or training. John said we’d have been dealing with a different scenario had he been a single, childless man. “There’s no way I would have stopped,” he told us. So we waited. Two weeks after the event, 16 ultrasound and CT tests still hadn’t ruled anything more conclusive than an intermittent problem with a heart valve and the “system that charges the heart”, to quote John. His resting heart rate was still around 85bpm, which was exhausting for him. John still couldn’t run either.

Back in the Simpson, there had been the option of calling in a chopper and paramedics from the Moomba gas field for an evacuation in 10 minutes. John refused. He wasn’t going to fly out – that was too easy.

“I’d rather cop a bit of pain along the way. I still got across the desert, it just wasn’t on the mode of transport I wanted,” John said. “… That’s how Ultra people think; a mongrel breed.” Maybe so? We’d attach a certain pedigree. 

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