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Simpson Desert

Travel Australia Information Destination Guide

National Australia Tourism

Simpson Desert
Northern Territory
South Australia

Driving across the Simpson
  > Dalhousie Springs to Macumba Well
  > Macumba Well to Poeppel Corner
  > Poeppel Corner to Birdsville

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Driving Across the Simpson Desert

There are a number of ways to cross the vast Simpson Desert, with one of the most popular routes being that of the Dalhousie Springs to Birdsville via the French Line, Rig Road, K1 Line and QAA Line (644 km) track.

There are a number of old shot lines and rig roads that criss-cross the desert, but the safest and easiest route are the one described here.

Don't expect to race across though, as it takes a minimum of three to four days, with the advice to take only the recommended tracks. In fact, many parts of the desert you may be lucky to cover 20 km in an hour.

To ensure a successful trip, it is essential to plan well ahead, ensure that your vehicle is well prepared, never travel alone, ensure sufficient supplies and contact the appropriate bodies for track and weather conditions. A tall vehicle flag is essential for safety when crossing the sand dunes.

During the 1960s, oil and gas exploration occurred throughout the desert and the tracks cut by the exploration companies are the means of access for travellers today. These tracks are no longer maintained, hence the difficulty of the crossing. For some historical information, check out the site Simpson Desert - The French Line.

Whatever route you take, due to the mixture of clay-topped and sand tracks it is definitely for 4WD vehicles only. Due to the desolate and remoteness of the region, it is not for the faint-hearted nor the ill-prepared! If you get stuck, it may cost you your life. It pays to be careful, prepared and well planned.

The main feature of the desert is the series of parallel sand dunes, some stretching over 300 km long and running south-east to north-west. Extreme care should be taken where the soft sand has created ridges on the dune tops, as the drop on the other side can be severe. Because of this, it is recommended that you traverse the desert from west to east.

Another feature of the Simpson, particularly in the central and eastern sections, is a series of clay playa lakes or clay-based pans, many of which have a salt crust. Where the track crosses them, take care to check the firmness of the surface even in dry conditions because the thin crust covers mud that is permanently soft. When wet, these lakes become impenetrable and vehicles often bog. Do not attempt the desert crossing after rain!

Requirements - Simpson Desert

Before you go:
  • Desert Parks Pass - which contains a good set of maps for your journey. Good maps are essential, 1:250,000 topographical maps being particularly useful.
  • Contact - make arrangements with a reliable friend to call on a specified time and date. If contact is not made this person can raise the alarm and call authorities.
  • Food, water, fuel - there are no facilities along the route, so adequate food, water and fuel supplies must be carried for the entire journey. It is recommended to have at least 5 litres of water per person per day.
  • Campfire - if you are planning to have campfires on the trip, bring your own wood.
  • Weather Conditions - check weather conditions both before and whilst on route, as rain can make areas impassable.

4WD and Driving Tips

  • Vehicle safety - it is very important that you pack your vehicle to create as low a centre of gravity as possible. Stowing heavy goods on the roof rack could easily cause your vehicle to roll. Avoid sudden turns. It will also be necessary to deflate your tyres to about 15 psi to cope with the dunes and soft sand areas (and don't forget to inflate them afterwards!).
  • Group Travel - it is always recommended to travel in a group of 4x4's and that at least one vehicle in your party fitted with a HF Outback RFDS radio.
  • Flag - attach a flag to the highest point of your vehicle (eg the radio aerial). It makes your vehicle much more visible in the desert and on the crest of dunes.
  • Dunes - take care when crossing dunes. Sand on the dune crests constantly move, creating steep drops, depressions and humps. Always approach the crest with caution and look along the track for oncoming vehicles. Dunes are easier to cross when the sand is cool in the morning and late afternoon. Sudden dust storms can be created by gusty winds, do not drive when visibility is poor.
  • Saltpans - these areas are composed of a thin, salty crust, that often overlay soft, black, sticky mud. Stay on defined tracks.

Access to the starting point of the trek at Dalhousie Springs is via Oodnadatta or Finke and Mount Dare Homestead. A series of marked tracks have been established within the parks of the Simpson Desert. The Desert Parks Pass kit contains detailed information in relation to these, offering practical advice as well as a deeper understanding of the area.

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Dalhousie Springs to Macumba Well (164 km)

Starting from the west side of the Simpson Desert in South Australia, Dalhousie Springs is an oasis in the centre of Witjira National Park. With about 80 mound springs and date palms, Dalhousie is a popular camping area, where swimming in the warm waters is an experience not to be missed! Take a couple of days to relax in the springs and visit the ruins of Dalhousie Homestead, just 12 km south on the Oodnadatta Road. There are toilet and rubbish facilities provided at the springs, but you will need to bring your own firewood.

Once you leave the springs, the track climbs to a tableland of gibber plains. About 20 km on, you will come across a swamp that is impassable after rain. You then cross a sandy plain and several claypans before reaching the Simpson Desert. The sand dunes, have been gradually getting bigger from the plain, and are now more noticeable.

Purni Bore still located in Witjira National Park before crossing over to the Simpson Desert is to your right, surrounded by several pools that are suitable for swimming in, although the water in the main pool is near boiling point. Always check temperatures before you dive in! The runoff from the bore has created a wetlands area, home to a number of waterbirds as well as passing camels, dingoes, rabbits etc. There are no facilities if you decide to pitch your tent.

From Purni Bore, follow the Rig Road. The Mokari airstrip is 14 km from the turnoff, just as the track begins to curve around to the left. The dunes are now larger, often with a severe drop on the other side. There are a lot of sand drifts around, so extreme care is advised. Keep veering right on the Rig Road and ignore any turnoffs that you might see. Not far from here, you'll pass the site of the abandoned Macumba Well.

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Macumba Well to Poeppel Corner (309 km)

After Macumba, the track turns east again across low and closely spaced dunes. After about 75 km you will enter the Simpson Desert Conservation Park. Not far from here is the 'Lone Gum', a solitary coolibah tree.

The dunes have become noticeably more yellow. This section of the track is one of the worst areas for dune mobility and deterioration of the clay surface, so take care and be prepared to experience some bad washouts. Further on, the track runs past small lunettes and the a large playa lake. Poolowanna Oil Well is an abandoned exploration site, that is a short way off the right of the track.

After winding around the playa lakes for over 100 km, the track reaches a junction with the K1 Line. This can be a tough stretch, as many dunes in this section have sand drifting over the track at crests, and washouts and gullying often occur. Turn left, in about 20 km you will re-enter the conservation park. About 60 km on will bring you to Poeppel Corner, where the borders of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland meet. This point is signified by a concrete post.

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Poeppel Corner to Birdsville (160 km)

Heading north-west from Poeppel Corner, you will travel through the Northern Territory for 22 km before turning right on to the QAA Line, and into Queensland and the Simpson Desert National Park. You will see higher dunes, wide clay flats and salt lakes. The QAA Line is a sandy track on which the dune crossings are generally more demanding.

About 90 km from Poeppel Corner, the track crosses the antiquated rabbit-proof fence and further on you will come to the flood plain of Eyre Creek. On the occasions there are flood waters through the desert, this stretch will be difficult to cross. In the event of this happening, there is a 59 km flood detour to the north of the main crossing.

Right on the edge of the desert lies the spectacular feature of the Simpson Desert, an enormous sand hill known as 'Big Red'. It can be difficult to cross coming from the west (nothing compared with what you have to contend with coming from the Birdsville side!), but there are deviations slightly to the north which make things a little easier. This is a challenge that most four-wheel drivers are happy to attempt (it's nice to be able to boast about it later).

From here, it's an effortless 36km into Birdsville, where you may choose to head south along the Birdsville Track.

Source: NRMA - Outback Tracks

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Useful Phone Numbers

Automobile Associations RAA Marla • Ph: 08 8670 7001
RACQ Birdsville • Ph: 07 4656 3226
National Parks Desert Parks District • Ph: 08 8648 5300
Desert Parks Hotline • Ph: 1800 816 078
Police Birdsville • Ph: 07 4656 3220
Marla • Ph: 08 8670 7020
Oodnadatta • Ph: 08 8670 7805
Road Conditions SA • Ph: 1300 361 033

Information quoted can change without notice and AusEmade cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracies. Always check all information with the relevant agencies.

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