In 1979, Denis Bartell fol­lowed Ce­cil Madi­gan’s route across the north­ern Simp­son Desert for the first ve­hic­u­lar cross­ing. We re­cently took Denis back there to re­visit the re­mote track.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents -

OUR small con­voy of ve­hi­cles crested a low sand dune, with a line of scat­tered trees in front of us mark­ing the main chan­nel of the ephemeral Hay River. We quickly came to the dry, gut­ter-like creek and propped be­side a small sign that marked Madi­gan’s Camp 15. Here we met the well-used and dis­tinct Hay River Track, which now runs be­tween Poep­pel Cor­ner in the south and Bat­ton Hill’s small camp­ground in the north, just south of the Plenty High­way.

We turned south for a rel­a­tively quick and pain­less 17km drive to Madi­gan’s Camp 16 and the gum tree he blazed that still stands tall and healthy. It’s now sur­rounded by a scrappy wire fence and a plethora of star pick­ets and signs de­not­ing who has been there and when. This visual blight oc­ca­sion­ally gets thinned out, leav­ing only a cou­ple of the more his­tor­i­cal signs such as the DNM (Di­vi­sion of Na­tional Map­ping) plaque from 1974 and the small yel­low signs that mark each of Madi­gan’s camps across the desert. Those small signs were first erected in 1994 by David Owen and Robert Cor­rea, then oper­a­tors of Owen Cor­rea Out­back Ad­ven­tur­ers. Their re­search and sub­se­quent mark­ing of all of Madi­gan’s camps have made it eas­ier for later trav­ellers to fol­low the route – an oft-used two-track has been devel­oped be­tween camps. The track also makes it a lot eas­ier on ve­hi­cles, as the route is much smoother than trav­el­ling cross-coun­try. The easy-to­fol­low route also elim­i­nates the need for com­pre­hen­sive nav­i­ga­tion.

In 1939, when Ce­cil Madi­gan and his team first crossed the desert, they filled in one of the last great blanks on the map of Australia. The desert had been pen­e­trated by early ex­plor­ers from the time of Charles Sturt’s ex­pe­di­tion in 1844, but not very far. In 1886 David Lind­say al­most crossed the en­tire desert from west to east, but turned back be­fore do­ing so. Then, in 1936, Ted Col­son, then owner of the Bloods Creek pas­toral lease on the west­ern edge of the

desert, be­came the first white fella to cross the sands to Birdsville and back.

From Bore No1, north of the Old An­dado Home­stead, Madi­gan’s group of nine men loaded their string of 19 camels and headed north to­wards the junc­tion of the Hale and Todd rivers be­fore strik­ing east across the desert. This journey across the Simp­son was with­out any drama and was wet for much of the time, mean­ing the camels had plenty of food and ended the trip in bet­ter state than when they left. It took nearly four weeks to cross the desert and, from Birdsville, they con­tin­ued their walk south to Mar­ree.

The French Line be­came the first route pushed across the desert in 1963 and 1964, with the Col­son Track be­ing graded around the same time. Reg Sprigg and his fam­ily, as part of the ex­plo­ration work for the drilling com­pa­nies, be­came the first to drive across the desert be­tween Mt Dare and Poep­pel Cor­ner in a Nissan Pa­trol, in 1962. The Ley­land Broth­ers fol­lowed in a cou­ple of Land Rovers in 1966, us­ing the French Line to cross the desert as part of the first ve­hi­cle cross­ing of Australia from Steep Point to Cape By­ron. The QAA Line used by all mod­ern-day trav­ellers be­tween Birdsville and Poep­pel Cor­ner was con­structed in 1979, while the other routes across the desert were also graded be­tween those years.

Denis Bartell started cross­ing the desert via the French Line in the mid ’70s, and he set out on his cross­ings of the desert in 1977 as part of a record-break­ing dou­ble cross­ing of Australia. What was unique about the trip was the cross-coun­try sec­tion through the very cen­tre of the desert be­tween Dick­er­rie Wa­ter­hole in the east and Dakota Bore in the west. It was also against the steep­est face of the dunes; all in an un­der­pow­ered three­cylin­der two-stroke LJ50 Suzuki that dis­placed 539cc and pro­duced a mam­moth 24kw and 57Nm.

When Denis drove the Madi­gan Line in 1979 – in an up­dated LJ80 Suzuki with a 31kw four-stroke en­gine – the north­ern Simp­son was com­pletely un­tracked as it



was when we fol­lowed the route in 1989. In both sit­u­a­tions, the go­ing was a lot tougher than to­day and we each took seven days to cross the desert from Old An­dado to Birdsville.

On this latest trip we rolled north from Ood­na­datta and stopped off at the Ab­minga rail­way sid­ing on the Old Ghan Rail­way line. De­serted ever since the rail­way through the heart of the coun­try was shifted far­ther west back in 1980, the build­ings have slowly fallen into de­cay with the cor­ru­gated iron roofs of the fet­tlers’ cot­tages be­ing ripped off by a wind storm a few years back.

Madi­gan’s party left the train here to head for Char­lotte Wa­ters, this first leg in a truck driven by a younger – and later to be­come the leg­endary Birdsville mail­man – Tom Kruse. From the de­serted build­ings at Char­lotte Wa­ters, Madi­gan’s party fol­lowed Coglin Creek, travers­ing the Finke River flood-out coun­try be­fore cross­ing a cou­ple of dunes to ar­rive at Old An­dado Home­stead. We jour­neyed to Char­lotte Wa­ters (only scat­tered ruins re­main, with most of the func­tional build­ing ma­te­rial be­ing used to erect the New Crown HS in the early 1980s), but, like most mod­ern trav­ellers, we di­verted to the civilised de­lights of the Mt Dare Ho­tel and camp­ground.

The next day, af­ter re­plen­ish­ing wa­ter and fuel stocks, we headed north on a bulldust-shrouded track to cross the Finke to Old An­dado. This was, up un­til re­cently, the home of the leg­endary pi­o­neer Molly Clark and her fam­ily. To­day it is main­tained by a fam­ily trust and a care­taker is in res­i­dence. Camp­ing is avail­able nearby, and a walk through the old his­toric home­stead, left much as Molly had it, is a must-do. Molly lies buried in the coun­try she loved, just a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres to the east of the old home­stead.

We left Old An­dado and headed north, pass­ing through the Mac Clark Con­ser­va­tion Re­serve, es­tab­lished to pro­tect one of the three groves of waddy trees in the world; the other two stands ex­ist north of Birdsville and south of Bou­lia. In 1939, Madi­gan com­mented on how few trees there were here af­ter most had been re­moved for the con­struc­tion of fences and cat­tle yards. To­day, af­ter Molly’s hus­band had fenced the area in the 1970s and it was de­clared a re­serve in 1982, these hard-wooded, slow-grow­ing trees seem to be thriv­ing, with many now out­side the fenced area designed to pro­tect the young ones from graz­ing cat­tle.

Heading along lit­tle-used sta­tion tracks and across flat sandy plains with the odd patch of small gib­ber stones, Denis rem­i­nisced about how good such coun­try was to travel across in the lit­tle

Suzuki – the go­ing be­ing quick and rel­a­tively com­fort­able com­pared to the spinifexlumpy sand dunes. That night we camped at what is marked on most maps as Camp 1A, lo­cated be­side the sta­tion track and east of Madi­gan’s Camp One (MC-1). Back when the camps were found and marked by David Owen and his crew, the sta­tion owner didn’t want peo­ple go­ing to MC-1, hence MC-1A.

The next morn­ing we headed north along the edge of a low range of jumpups, the most prom­i­nent peaks be­ing named af­ter mem­bers of Madi­gan’s orig­i­nal party: Mar­shall Bluff and Crocker Hill. We climbed the nearby Poo­d­init­terra Hill’s small cairn where, be­tween the peak and the con­vo­luted line of the low range on a sec­tion of flat ground cut by some nar­row threads of tran­sient streams, was where Madi­gan made his Camp 2.

Just north of here we passed a derelict Case trac­tor (you’ll find a ‘Geo­cache’


around here) and ar­rived at The Twins, two dis­tinc­tive con­i­cal-shaped hills that lie side by side. Madi­gan had climbed these and found a small cairn, prob­a­bly built by the sur­veyor T.E. Dale while on a tra­verse from Char­lotte Wa­ters to the East Mac­don­nell Ranges in 1916. Plaques erected by the RGS (SA branch) and Reg Sprigg, both in 1967, now adorn the cairn, but, thank­fully, no other mark­ers have been left here. We clam­bered to the top of the steep-sided hill and ad­mired the great view the peak gives of the sur­round­ing coun­try and dunes, which be­gin not far to the east. We only stopped for a morn­ing brew, but there are a cou­ple of rea­son­able spots to camp.

We turned south and then east from The Twins and fol­lowed a clear set of tracks across some big dunes and wide swales. This route crossed the flood-out coun­try of the Hale River, which would make a pretty rea­son­able spot to camp among the scat­tered clumps of trees. We turned north af­ter meet­ing with the Col­son Track,

pass­ing a cross­road, the west­ern side of which leads to the site of a rel­a­tively new min­ing camp. Heading a short dis­tance north we came to MC-5, to the west of the Col­son Track. There’s not a lot to keep one here for long, so we headed east again on a well-worn two-track, cut­ting the old min­ing road and strik­ing on to­wards MC-6 and camp­ing that evening be­tween MC-7 and MC-8. We had done an un­prece­dented 176km for the day; some­thing im­pos­si­ble to do in ear­lier times.

The next day we crossed some of the tallest dunes of the trip, pass­ing through MC-9 and MC-10 be­fore com­ing to Madi­gan’s Camp 11. There was wa­ter and good feed for his camels here, so Madi­gan stopped for the night, even though he had left his pre­vi­ous camp just an hour or so ear­lier. In 1981 this was one of the first camp­sites re­lo­cated and marked by the Di­vi­sion of Na­tional Map­ping (DNM), the two clay­pans here be­ing very dis­tinc­tive. Denis had passed this spot a short dis­tance to the north, while on my trip in 1989 we had the good for­tune of a DNM mem­ber who led us to the clay­pans. To­day, the track makes nav­i­ga­tion easy.

We passed through MC-14 the next day, and then a short dis­tance later came to the Hay River, MC-15 and turned south to MC-16. Madi­gan won­dered when he blazed the small gum tree (the big­gest he could find in the Hay) who would be the next per­son to see it – that could have been oil seek­ers who were pushing north, while in 1974 a DNM group passed this way while es­tab­lish­ing bench­marks along the Hay River as part of their sur­vey of the Simp­son. Denis was al­most cer­tainly the next to ar­rive here, close to last light af­ter a long day bump­ing across the dunes. He and his trav­el­ling com­pan­ion, Michael Richardson (then edi­tor of Over­lan­der mag­a­zine), opened a bot­tle of red wine and saluted Madi­gan and his men, who on their cross­ing were feel­ing pretty happy with them­selves and had opened a bot­tle of whiskey to cel­e­brate at MC-15.

Many mod­ern-day trav­ellers opt to con­tinue down the Hay River to Poep­pel Cor­ner and the more well-known pub­lic ac­cess routes across the desert. Heading east on the Madi­gan Line de­mands per­mis­sion from Adria Downs Sta­tion

and the Queens­land NP&WS to cross the Munga-thirri Na­tional Park. We re­ceived per­mis­sion from both or­gan­i­sa­tions and con­tin­ued east, cross­ing more dunes on a track that was still pretty well-de­fined, but cer­tainly a lot less used than the route west of the Hay River.

As we closed in on the bor­der, the desert’s dunes grew far­ther apart and more clay­pans and stands of gidgee trees ar­rived on the in­ter­dunal val­leys. We took a diver­sion and found Mud­loo Well in among a large stand of gidgee scrub – well, we found a star picket and sign that in­di­cated the well. This of­ten-elu­sive wa­ter­ing point, with a slop­ing man-made fun­nel-shaped shaft, was once a very im­por­tant Abo­rig­i­nal na­tive well. Re­port­edly 30-foot deep, it’s a bit of an enigma and, nei­ther Denis (who re­dis­cov­ered many na­tive wells through the desert and was ac­claimed by re­searchers and Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple for his en­deav­ours) nor I, were re­luc­tant to con­firm our most re­cent ‘dis­cov­ery’. I would like to spend a bit more time here and con­firm where the well ac­tu­ally is... or was.

We pushed on as the go­ing be­came eas­ier and faster. Our run that day was a long one of 149km (in nine hours) as we tracked south, cross­ing out of the park where the old ver­min-proof fence marks the park bound­ary.

The sun was mak­ing tracks to the west­ern hori­zon as we crossed the dry and dusty flood-out coun­try of the Mul­li­gan River, and it was near last light as we pulled up to camp at Kud­da­ree Wa­ter­hole on the Eyre Creek – Madi­gan’s Camp 20. Sur­pris­ingly we found the wa­ter­hole dry, but the next day we were de­lighted to find the Annandale Wa­ter­hole along a pleas­ant stretch of gum tree-lined wa­ter. Nearby, the ruins of Annandale Home­stead can still be seen and ad­mired. Sadly we didn’t dally long and headed south on good sta­tion tracks, stop­ping at Dick­er­rie Cross­ing where Denis had started the cross-coun­try leg of his dou­ble jaunt across Australia, 40 years pre­vi­ously.

That evening we camped at the base of Big Red, the dune Denis had named in 1977 af­ter sit­ting atop its fiery crest on a num­ber of pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions. Like most Simp­son trav­ellers we sat on the great red dome and paid homage to that great sandy ex­panse and to what Denis re­ferred to then as his, “desert of dreams”. To­day, his desert of dreams is a dream for all of us. Get out there and en­joy it.


Denis takes in a fiery desert sun­set as Phil and Trent cook a feed.

The 1967 RGS plaque adorns the cairn north of MC-2.

Madi­son’s Camp 11 fea­tures dis­tinc­tive twin clay­pans.

Evening at our Kud­da­ree Wa­ter­hole camp on Eyre Creek.


The old ver­min-proof fence was once an im­por­tant nav­i­ga­tion marker.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.