See also 2019 East-West, Part 2.
For fifty years, the 1969 expedition known as "the impossible journey" was the first and only east-to-west vehicular crossing of the center of Australia's Simpson Desert. But the details were forgotten; Jeep historian Vaughn Becker in Queensland had heard only vague stories about a group of Jeeps in the late 1960s making the crossing.
Doing it from east to west had been a longstanding challenge, called "impossible" because of the steep slope on the east side of the red sand dunes. The Simpson has 1,100 of the world's longest parallel sand dunes, running up to 120 miles (200 km) north-south and with a height of up to 130 feet (40 m). (Wikipedia)
In 2018 Vaughn finally located the three surviving members of the group of six adventurers who had crossed the Simpson during April 1969, in three Jeeps provided by Willys Australia. They had followed that with a trek across the continent from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean in August 1969. Vaughn also discovered that both undertakings had been well documented in diaries, photos, and even a one-hour documentary film.
The film had deteriorated over the years, but Vaughn enlisted me to convert it into a pretty good looking video, and armed with the video and the photos, he set out to generate interest in a 50th anniversary commemoration of the trip. He got Jeep Action magazine involved, and that led to the sponsorships, drivers and vehicles necessary to make a new crossing happen. This would be the first crossing of the trackless center since 1969. The "BF Goodrich East to West Expedition" travelled across the continent in July 2019, and I was invited along for the ride because of my small role in preserving the history of the 1969 trip. (See 1969 Simpson Desert Expedition on CJ3B.info.)
This map compares the approximate routes of the original crossing in April 1969 (in yellow) and the East-West Expedition of July 2019 (in red). Both trips had to divert north shortly after leaving Birdsville, to avoid flooded areas along Eyre Creek. After that point, the 2019 expedition used GPS to maintain a more direct route because the Jeeps lacked the large auxiliary fuel tanks used in 1969. The Jeeps still had to rendezvous three times with a truck carrying drums of fuel up the established north-south tracks (route shown in white.)
Click for a larger copy of the map, based on GPS waypoints recorded by Vaughn Becker, Google satellite imaging, HEMA Maps data, and the 1969 map by Gordon Gant (190K JPEG). Gant's map was published in Malcolm Wilson's article "Birds of the Simpson Desert" (Emu - Austral Ornithology, 1974) and it shows both the April 1969 Simpson trip and the August 1969 transcontinental trip which followed the northern edge of the Simpson.
Five Jeep Wranglers -- a TJ, three JKs and a brand new JL -- assembled at Dave Parkinson's place outside Brisbane, Queensland, to pack the gear and supplies. One TJ had already retired from the expedition after developing trouble in the newly-rebuilt engine during the drive up from Melbourne.
The Jeeps had been prepared in Melbourne with equipment including BFGoodrich KM3 tires, Warn Zeon winches and TeraFlex suspensions, under the supervision of Jeep Action and parts supplier JeepKonection.
The back of Paul Graham's JK, not to mention the Teraflex rack and Bestop storage bags, was stuffed with camping gear. The Dometic 12-volt fridge/freezer was a great luxury to have along.
Miran Hunzicker (left) showed up in his 1958 CJ-3B to say hello and show me the handritten Willys Australia factory production records.
Here he's chatting with Vaughn Becker and two of the members of the original 1969 expedition, Ian McDonald and John Eggleston, who came with us on the 50th anniversary trip.
1969: Back in April 1969, the original team of six posed with their CJ-6 Overlanders, overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the most easterly point in Australia, Byron Bay.
From left, naturalists Malcolm Wilson and Lance Cockburn, filmmaker John Eggleston, navigator Gordon Gant, factory mechanic Bob Whinham, and leader Ian McDonald.
On 1 July 2019 we made our official start from the beach just south of Byron Bay, where there was lots of room for the five vehicles. Expedition leader Chris Collard and renowned Jeep author Rick Péwé were putting together web video clips, and here Chris shoots Rick giving a preview of the adventure.
Rick and Chris fill bottles with water from the Pacific Ocean, to transport west to the Indian Ocean.
Of course there's a delay, for the first of many photo shoots during the trip. Just as was the case on the 1969 crossing, the Jeeps often have to wait for the camera to get into position, and then drive past. Making things more complicated now is that the shoots also involve drones taking video from above, and instructions radioed to the drivers.
1969: Seeing our five Jeeps lined up on the sand reminds me of this great photo from 1969. It's a rare one because it includes both the Rokon Trailblazer 2WD motorbike used to scout the dunes, and the "hidden Jeep" -- the CJ-5 which doesn't appear in the film. It's an Australian Sportster model (250K JPEG) and is carrying pails of oil, plus the steel sand ladders on the roof. Gordon and Ian are having a look at the map.
Our first stop as we head west, is a send-off barbecue organized by Kevin Bourke at Mt. Gravatt Jeep in Brisbane, where we pose for our first group photo. In the center are Trevor Cockburn and Robyn Wieck, son and daughter of Lance Cockburn from the 1969 team.
See a large copy of the photo including a complete list of names.
There are plenty of memories brought up when we stop at the home of Malcolm Wilson (left), the ornithologist and naturalist on the 1969 team, who doesn't feel up to hitting the Simpson again.
Malcolm, Ian and John swap stories while family members and reporters mill around. Without Malcolm along this time, it will be mainly up to John to identify the unique flora and fauna of the desert for us.
1969: Ian snaps a photo as Malcolm, John and Lance Cockburn prepare to bed down in their swags on the original trip.
The huge 140-gallon fuel tank is visible, filling two-thirds of the utility bed of the Overlander.
Most of the Wranglers on the 2019 trip do have auxiliary fuel tanks supplied by Long Range Automotive, but will still rely on Dave "Emu" Parkinson and the drums of petrol in his Toyota truck, to meet them at pre-planned points (see the map, 700K JPEG).
Veteran off-road racing driver Sue Mead is in journalist mode here, as she snaps a picture of Emu, the secret weapon of our assault on the desert.
The road ends and the track begins at Birdsville, where we arrive on 8 July 2019 (see the map, 700K JPEG). It's the last chance to fill up the fuel tanks at a "servo," and it's home to the Birdsville Hotel, "Australia's most iconic outback pub" (since 1886.)
The interior of the pub lives up to its reputation, and those of us who aren't doing a last check on the Jeeps and the gear, take advantage of the air conditioning for a chat and a glass of XXXX, brewed in Brisbane.
If you want to take a photo of the place, you have to drop some cash in the donation box for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Another support vehicle, which has rescued many overlanding tourists from the desert tracks over the years (at substantial expense) is the Birdsville Roadhouse wrecker, built in 1979 by M.A.N. for the German army. But proprietor Barnesy would probably not be interested in taking it where we're heading.
With the orange Maxtrax recovery boards strapped on, we prepare to head out on the QAA Line. This track connects to the French Line, the most popular route for crossing the southern part of the desert, usually from west to east because the west slope of the dunes is easier.
This was the route originally taken by the very first motorised crossing of the Simpson, when explorer and geologist Reg Sprigg drove it west to east with his wife Griselda and their two kids, in a Nissan Patrol in 1962 (see footnote).
Beside the airport on the west side of Birdsville are a couple of cairns commemorating previous desert crossings. On the left is one built by Reg Sprigg after he arrived in Birdsville in 1962, recognizing Cecil Madigan's 1939 scientific expedition with 17 camels (see a closeup, 700K JPEG).
The cairn on the right has plaques recording Ted Colson's 1936 round trip by camel, and a 1970 survey led by John Gibson on foot.
It's 9 July, so it's winter downunder -- the only months that it's not too hot for desert travel. We will encounter daytime highs only around 30C (86F), and below freezing at night.
With the first dune ahead on the track, it's time to air down the tires a bit.
Vaughn Becker has been waiting for this moment for a long time. He has arranged permission from aboriginal authorities for us to cross the central desert.
We have plenty of outback driving experience in the group, including Michael Bowen, editor-at-large for Jeep Action magazine.
The Jeeps will keep in contact via UHF radio, and will monitor the standard channel 10 for advance warning of oncoming traffic on the single-lane track, particularly where it goes over a dune.
We detour to the north to get to a spot to cross the flooded Eyre Creek, and Sue is getting this on camera too. It's the last time we'll see water for a while.
Our trip was actually delayed by a month because the massive flooding coming down from the north had surrounded Birdsville in the spring.
I was concerned about how far we might have to go to clear the flooding, but it turned out to be less than in 1969. Still, every extra mile is using up fuel.
Here, Jeep Action editor Ben Davidson brings his JK out of the creek.
We follow the Hay River Track north to our jumpoff point for the trackless desert, the abandoned oil well known as Beachcomber No.1 (see the map, 700K JPEG). The test bore from 1988 is 1,829 meters deep.
Chris shoots John talking about the oil exploration of the 1980s, the last time there was any activity here by non-aboriginals.
Every night there are lots of dry gumtree sticks (600K JPEG) for the fire, because nothing rots very fast in the desert.
West of Beachcomber, the Jeeps face hundreds of large, parallel dunes with no existing tracks across them. We pick our way slowly across the valleys, keeping clear of the tough, spiky spinifex grass, and sharp tree stumps that can pierce a tire.
The lead vehicle chooses a line for a pedal-to-the-metal run up a dune, which often includes some turns on the way up to avoid the big clumps of spinifex. The next Jeep watches to see how it goes, and may try a different line.
Centuries of wind have worn the red sand into very small, smooth grains. When a couple of Jeeps have taken the same line, and especially later in the day as the sun heats the sand, it gets softer and it's easier to get bogged down near the top of a dune.
Usually a tug from a recovery strap is all that's necessary. Ian and John are amazed at how much more easily the Wranglers' big engines and big tires climb the dunes than the CJ-6 Overlanders did in 1969.
Alan and Karen McMullen, who are an experienced Australian offroad team, look over the map with Chris. It's pretty much directly west from Beachcomber to the center point of the desert, and on to Old Andado station on the far side (see the map, 700K JPEG).
There is almost no evidence left of seismic survey lines laid out during oil exploration in the 1980s, and still shown as light dotted lines on the map. But we actually find this post marked as part of survey line SD85-51 (400K JPEG).
The Geographical Center features a small tower, and Ben gets the Jeeps lined up there for a picture.
Every now and then, some adventurers make it here, along what the map calls an "unformed track" running up from the south, between the dunes.
I add my name and a greeting from CJ3B.info, to the guest book (310K JPEG) where visitors record their names and the dates of their arrival at the Geographical Center.
Driving into the sun, we make it as far west as we can before sunset, but it's too risky to drive after dark, and we camp not far from the center on 11 July, our third night in the desert.
Now that we're in the western half of the Simpson we are truly in unknown territory -- the only time this has been driven before was in 1969, and in fact we will be quite a bit north of the 1969 route.
Before dawn every morning Chris likes to blast bagpipe tunes from the sound system in the JL, so that we're all up in time to be rolling at dawn.
Our next objective is to meet the fuel truck at the Colson Track (see the map, 700K JPEG), but there will be a few surprises before we get there.
Continue to 2019 East-West, Part 2.
Thanks to Vaughn Becker for his assistance. Photos from 1969 courtesy of Malcolm Wilson, John Eggleston and Ian McDonald. -- Derek Redmond
See also the story of the original 1969 Simpson Desert Expedition on CJ3B.info.
See more Jeeps in Australia on CJ3B.info.
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