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2019 East-West
Simpson Desert Expedition

by Derek Redmond -- Part 2

See also 2019 East-West, Part 1.

The Uncharted West

2019 photo Shortly after sunrise on 12 July 2019 we begin our first full day in the western half of Australia's Simpson Desert, where the HEMA map and the GPS show nothing but dune lines for 100 miles.

This is Part 2 of the story of the 2019 crossing of the center of the Simpson, from my point of view as somebody invited along for the ride because of my small role in preserving the history of the first crossing, 50 years ago. (See 1969 Simpson Desert Expedition on CJ3B.info.)

2019 photo We are retracing that 1969 expedition, the only previous motorized crossing of the center of the Simpson, but limited fuel means we are taking the shortest route possible -- due west. As a result we are somewhat to the north of the longer 1969 route (see the map, 700K JPEG).

2019 photo Because we are crossing east to west, we have to go up the steep side of the 1,100 dunes that make up the Simpson.

Alan and Karen McMullen's white JK8 pickup conversion with its GM V8 (and a lot of outback experience) has little trouble in the sand and is often at the front of the caravan.

1969 photo colorized 1969: The CJ-6 Overlanders with their smaller engines and tires had a tougher time on the dunes. Nicknamed Rhino and Hippo, they often required sand ladders to give them some traction.

This colorized photo shows team leader Ian McDonald in 1969, with John Eggleston on the 2WD Rokon motorcycle used to scout the best line over the dunes. He remembers the bike as being able to go anywhere.

2019 photo In 2019, Ian and John are great sources of knowledge about the desert, and full of stories from the old days.

Based on their experience further south in 1969, we are expecting that the dunes may get even higher as we continue west, where they had their most difficult hill climbs. But it turns out that our route bypasses those monsters.

2019 photo Still, there are some tense moments. Here, the red TJ ends up leaning at about 45 degrees, near the top of a dune, after Rick Péwé hits a clump of spinifex. He calls for a winch on the radio, and has Justin He climb out to put weight on the uphill side, ready to bail if the Jeep starts the long roll down.

Meanwhile Justin, dedicated video journalist, keeps his camera rolling, and Alan attaches his winch line to stabilize things.

Composite photo

This composite photo summarizes the recovery, with the Warn Zeon winch on Ben Davidson's JK pulling the TJ up onto the top of the dune, while Alan's JK8 keeps tension on the side.

2019 photo Watching the Jeeps from the top of a dune is almost as good as the aerial video taken by the drones.

2019 photo The only sizeable animals we run across are a few camels, who seem interested in watching us go past.

The famous poisonous snakes are apparently in hibernation for the winter, and the dingoes who would try to pinch items from camp on the 1969 trip, have possibly migrated closer to the tracks along the edges of the desert.

2019 photo Australia's unique population of wild dromedary camels, originally brought here from India and the Middle East to provide transportation in the 19th century, has been estimated to be over 1 million and growing. We find them as fascinating as they seem to find us.

2019 photo The only other large object we find in the western desert is a leftover from the oil exploration of the 1960s. The big tank on wheels is a roller used to pack down the sand at one of a number of small airfields scattered across the Simpson. The outline of the runway can still be seen.

2019 photo Empty drums of aviation fuel lying around, confirm the purpose of the flattened area. As Chris Collard takes a photo, Ian tells Vaughn Becker about a similar airfield they encountered in 1969.

2019 photo Here I am with some small creatures who make their presence well known every day from mid-morning to sunset. The little flies don't bite, but if you don't brush them off you soon have a crowd of them on your face, trying to get a little drink off your skin.

2019 photo If they're driving you nuts, the only solution is to wear a fly net over your hat. Here Karen McMullen and Sue Mead are protected as they put together some ham and cheese wraps for lunch. Paul Graham gets the mustard flowing for his sandwich, but he's going to need to flip up the net to eat it!

2019 photo Dust is the other thing that gets on your face (and also gets into one of my point-and-shoot cameras.) Here's Sue's solution as she rides shotgun for Rick.

2019 photo On the afternoon of 12 July we hear Dave Parkinson's voice on the radio, and we know we're getting close to the Colson Track, which runs north-south between two dunes (see the map, 700K JPEG).

Emu is waiting right where he said he would be, and we spend the rest of the day pumping fuel out of the drums in the back of his Land Cruiser, and setting up camp nearby.

2019 photo A cloud formation seen at dawn on 13 July is a good omen for the success of what we are now referring to as the "Seven Slot Expedition," and we make good time today.

2019 photo But things are also soon put into a larger perspective when we pass the bones of a camel scattered on the sand.

Everybody wants some photos, probably because it's one of the moments when we suddenly realize how long this desert has been here, and how lucky we are to be some of the very few, perhaps the only, visitors who have passed this way.

2019 photo Then it's a surprise when we see some cattle (600K JPEG) in the valley between two dunes. We realize we must be approaching Andado Station, the largest cattle station in Australia. As we climb each of the shrinking dunes, we're hoping for a glimpse of our objective, the Old Andado homestead.

Old Andado

2019 photo When we get there, it's a magical place. The house was originally built in the 1920s, on land traditionally owned by the Arrernte aboriginal people. It was occupied by Molly and Malcolm 'Mac' Clark from 1955 until 1960, when they built a new Andado homestead further west. But they had a dream of making Old Andado into an attraction for 4x4 tourists, which they did in the 1970s. Basic facilities for camping are provided at a modest fee.

2019 photo The house and outbuildings were restored and remain exactly as they were when Molly Clark was living there -- it's like walking into a time machine. Molly, who died in 2012, is buried on the property.

2019 photo Several generations of outback communications equipment, from early radiotelephone to early satellite phone, sit on Molly and Mac's desk. The first phone number on the list is the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

2019 photo Asd we gather around the campfire on 13 July, we realize that the hard part is over. It's actually hard to believe that something in the planning for so long, has happened so quickly. Here are Rick, John and Vaughn doing some reminiscing about the last five days, as well as about the old days of 1969.

1969 photo 1969: It's easy to see why the 1969 team looked so happy after their crossing, which took 12 days from Birdsville to Old Andado. From left, factory mechanic Bob Whinham, leader Ian McDonald, naturalists Lance Cockburn and Malcolm Wilson, filmmaker John Eggleston, and navigator Gordon Gant.

2019 photo The next morning, John completes a ritual originally recommended by an aboriginal elder in 1969. To appease the giant serpent called Kudamuckra, who created the dunes of the desert back in Dreamtime, we needed to gather leaves from a coolibah tree, burn them in our campfire before entering the desert, and carry the ash with us. Now the ashes are sprinkled in the wind, with thanks to the serpent for allowing safe passage.

2019 photo Chris airs a tire back up slightly, as the remaining drive to Alice Springs will be on a track.

2019 photo Paul finds the air hose is also useful to clean spinifex out of the radiator of his JK, as Sue and Ben discuss plans for the day, namely getting to Alice Springs and a cellphone signal as soon as possible.

2019 photo We find something you could almost call a road, so the drivers are loving the chance to get some speed up, and we raise a lot of bulldust on the Old Andado Track, north to Santa Teresa.

2019 photo I'm nervous driving Ben's JK and trying to stay within sight of the veteran off-road racers. Ben is nervous too but takes a photo for me.

Alice Springs

2019 photo We enter town on the highway from the south, through the narrow gap in the MacDonnell Ranges, squeezed in beside the railway. It's seen here in the background, from the top of Anzac Hill in the center of Alice, where Dave Parkinson takes me to see the World War I memorial.

2019 photo The night of our arrival, the celebration of having repeated the April 1969 crossing from Birdsville to Alice Springs, is at Bojangles Saloon & Restaurant, a busy spot filled with outback memorabilia.

Clockwise from left, Vaugh Becker, Derek Redmond, Justin He, Alan & Karen McMullen, Sue Mead, Chris Collard, Ian McDonald, John Eggleston, Rick Péwé, Paul Graham, Ben Davidson and Michael Bowen.

2019 photo I have been lobbying for the group to detour through the Finke River Gorge, known as the oldest watercourse in the world, before they head for the west coast. Vaughn, Ian and John have flown home from Alice, and my plan is to fly back to the east coast from Uluru in a couple of days. We head out on the sealed road west from Alice toward the Finke River National Park.

2019 photo In the Finke Gorge, the red is familiar, but this time it's not sand but sandstone. There is actually water here and there in the riverbed, and the gorge through the MacDonnell Ranges is also home to the rare red cabbage palm (490K JPEG).

2019 photo On the morning of 16 July, the five Jeeps leave the National Park and continue via tracks and roads to Uluru (Ayers Rock). From there I fly back to join Roseanna in Cairns. The East-West Expedition heads for the Great Central Road, to take them across Western Australia to Steep Point on the west coast, completing the full transcontinental trip.

1969 photo 1969: For a press reception at the Willys Motors assembly plant in Brisbane following the April 1969 trip, Rhino and Hippo got banners reading "Jeep Overlander: First Through Simpson Desert."

Composite photo The Wranglers headed back from the west coast by highway to the Jeep Action offices in Melbourne, so they were unable to return to Brisbane for a pose at the old factory, which still stands empty.

Kevin Bourke had taken me out there for a look, in one of Australia's first JLs (250K JPEG), so I was able to put together this composite image showing what a triumphal return of the 2019 East-West Expedition might have looked like.

Thanks to Vaughn Becker for his assistance. Photos from 1969 courtesy of Malcolm Wilson, John Eggleston and Ian McDonald. -- Derek Redmond

Return to 2019 East-West, Part 1.

See also the story of the original 1969 Simpson Desert Expedition on CJ3B.info.

For more photos, descriptions and video of the 2019 trip, see posts by these expedition members, elsewhere on the web:

See more Jeeps in Australia on CJ3B.info.

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Last updated 13 July 2020 by Derek Redmond redmond@cj3b.info
All content not credited and previously copyright, is copyright Derek Redmond