Af­ter dessert across a desert

Din­ner in Mel­bourne leads to a Simp­son Desert cross­ing in a Sca­nia 6x6 truck


WE ARE in an Ital­ian restau­rant in Mel­bourne.

The pasta is great, the am­bi­ent light is low and the sec­ond bot­tle of a good red is breath­ing.

I’m with Tim Rowe, a friend who un­for­tu­nately passed away a year ago.

But in 1988 we were both full of life. Tim han­dled mar­ket­ing and pub­lic re­la­tions for Sca­nia.

With the sec­ond bot­tle of wine, the truth will out, the cor­po­rate plat­i­tudes for­got­ten.

“I’ve sent me out a 6x6 body truck and I don’t know what to do with it,” Tim said, re­fer­ring to his cor­po­rate masters in Swe­den.

Bel­lies full, the tide half­way out in the bot­tle of wine and I said “Do I have a deal for you”.

Two months later I’m with Tim Rowe in Alice Springs.

The “deal” I sug­gested was that we drive the Sca­nia across the Simp­son Desert, but not to fol­low the Rig Road, the route used by heavy trucks to get drilling equip­ment into the desert for oil ex­plo­ration, but fol­low the French Line which, for a heavy truck, would be far more dif­fi­cult.

Rowie agreed and the truck was floated to Alice Springs where we met, loaded sup­plies into the back of the funny lit­tle tray, and we were ready to go.

Rowie was in the cab look­ing around, get­ting set­tled in the pas­sen­ger seat, and said, “Where are the maps?”

“We don’t need maps,” I said, “I’ve crossed the desert many times. Just head east, if we run into the Pa­cific Ocean we know we have gone too far.”

Like a fox out of the hen house when he sees the farmer com­ing with a gun, Rowie was out of the truck and off to find the Lands Branch of­fice and 20 min­utes later I watched him re­turn­ing with his arms full of rolled maps. We were on our way.

We had the op­tion of head­ing south fol­low­ing the swales be­tween the sand­hills un­til we cut the Rig Road.

We headed south to Ab­minga on the old Ghan rail­way line and turned east, out through the ru­ins of Blood Creek Sta­tion and the Fed­eral Homestead where the skele­tons of old ve­hi­cles and piles of bot­tles sur­round­ing the stone ru­ins told of shat­tered dreams of would-be pas­toral­ists set­ting up in good times to have those dreams smashed with the com­ing of drought.

At Purni Bore, out in the sand­hills, there was a mis­shapen turkey nest that you topped up with hot wa­ter from the bore and could have a glo­ri­ous warm swim.

The bore has since been capped, but back in the 80s there were few 4WD tourists and the wa­ter ran free to cre­ate its own ecosys­tem that at­tracted birds and camels for their once a week “fill up”.

The sand­hills of the

❝a There was

turkey nest that you topped up with hot wa­ter from the bore and could have a glo­ri­ous warm swim.

French line are not clayed, and the truck was start­ing to work, plug­ging through soft sand.

It was all six-wheel drive work now. We climbed the first hill with live sand, with all diffs locked the truck went straight over, plough­ing through the soft sand.

We had let the tyre pres­sures down to 50 psi all round. Things were look­ing good.

Find­ing the right gear with which to hit a hill was the se­cret, fast enough so that the mo­men­tum car­ried you over, yet not so fast that torque was lost as the revs came back.

Then there was a big one. I let the truck go up in fifth gear.

It ran up the track, buck­ing over the rough patches chewed up by pre­vi­ous four-wheel driv­ers.

The truck slewed and stopped in the soft sand 10 me­tres from the top.

I re­versed and ran it again, mak­ing a few me­tres, and so es­tab­lished a rou­tine that was to be car­ried out many times over the next few days.

Run a hill, make a few me­tres, re­verse and try again.

When the truck was a few me­tres from the crest it was pos­si­ble to en­gage bog cog and the truck would slowly churn it­self over.

Well into the French line, ev­ery sand­hill was now a new chal­lenge. We crossed salt lakes and climbed red sand­hills.

In the morn­ing of the fourth day of the cross­ing Big Red loomed ahead.

I was pretty sure the truck would not make it up this giant of a sand­hill with­out a lot of work, but felt I needed to give it a try.

A fast run at the climb, and the truck churned to a stop, all diffs locked, all wheels driv­ing, about half­way up the sand­hill.

Well you have to try. We crossed at an eas­ier cross­ing and then an easy run into the re­mote town of Birdsville and a cold beer.


A DESERT BEDROOM: The Sca­nia 112 6x6 was prob­a­bly the first 20-tonne truck to cross the French Line, as op­posed to the Rig Road.

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