Crossing the Simpson Desert by Motorcycle
Part 4 – Poeppel Corner to Big Red and Birdsville
With Mark Battersby
I wake early anticipating the sunrise over the clay pan and it didn’t disappoint. I had mixed thoughts about today, some had said it was the easier of the days due to the greater spacing between dunes, others voiced the dunes were taller, softer and more of a challenge.
We still have to face Big Red the tallest of dunes as our last obstacle too. Only 146 km to Birdsville, meaning just over 100 km until we’ve crossed the Simpson.
I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but if yesterday was most challenging riding I’d ever done, today would be the most exhilarating and fun I’ve ever had off-road.
The scenery varies greatly as we continued north to the end of the clay pan before turning east onto the QAA Line. The dunes began to increase in size, as did the run up towards the crest. I now find myself hitting the base in third gear high in the rev range and only down-shifting to second nearing the crest. I’m also able to sneak into fourth gear on the straight and spend more time on the seat, which my ankle greatly appreciates.
The approach ramps now appear wider with signs of increased traffic recently making the climb more challenging. I find myself having to commit earlier with increased speed and sometimes hitting sand wash-outs and mounds created by 4WDs much faster than ever thought I could do. There was also a change to the descending side of the dunes.
Previously these were only chopped by 4WD tyres struggling to gain traction, now they are littered with dozens of camel tracks. I know what you are thinking, but in soft sand camels do leave some deep holes that need to be navigated just as carefully as tyre tracks.
As my confidence increases, I am able to crest each dune with sufficient speed to remain on the pegs and power down the dunes. This has been the biggest change in my riding since leaving Dalhousie Springs and the difference it has made has been a game changer.
Looking back on the day I still can’t decide if my riding improved or the terrain was less challenging, but I was loving the ride and for the first time didn’t want it to end.
I found myself looking at the GPS counting down how many kilometres it was to Birdsville. I knew that Big Red, which signalled the end of the Simpson, was forty kilometres west of Birdsville so I kept subtracting that from my numbers.
I remember saying to myself, ‘What, only seventy kilometres to Birdsville, that means only thirty until I’ve crossed the Simpson.’
I find my speeds have increased due to the flat sections between dunes, and I’m hitting the dunes with more speed. I have a couple of close calls on the steeper dunes but no offs so far.
There had been talk at Mt Dare that Eyre Creek was flooded which meant the possibility of a sixty kilometre detour north along the Eyre Creek bypass track. Flood water hadn’t arrived yet, and Eyre Creek was dry and barren with deep washout and sharp ruts. On the WR this was a fun section and I regret not slowing and taking more photos through here.
It’s always a challenge when adventure riding, you love riding through sections and enjoying the terrain, but it’s also wonderful to stop and capture the moments. I guess it just means I’ll have to return.
I look down at the GPS and it signals just over forty kilometres to Birdsville. I feel a combination of racing to the finish line to know I’ve completed the challenge, but I also don’t want this adventure of a lifetime to end.
One obstacle still remains, Big Red. I’ve watched countless videos of motorcycles charging up with ease, and others of bikes needing multiple attempts, and others even seeking an alternative route.
As I crest one of the larger dunes I see a wide open plain with the largest of the dunes in the distance. As I approach I notice four alternative well-used tracks leading to the crest – finally I have reached Big Red. At this point the 4WDs are about twenty minutes behind me and I use this time to ride to base and inspect my various options. There are 4WDs and people gathered at the top watching those approaching from the west, no doubt enjoying the various failed attempts.
The far right approach seems the most gentle, however it has a sharp left turn near the top which is hidden from view. Still I think this is my best option. I decide to wait for the 4WDs and celebrate this significant moment with a tasty beverage from the fridge.
Mick in the Amarok is keen to have first attempt and also chooses the far right as his preferred option. The Amarok disappears from view after easily climbing the first incline, reaching where track twists towards the crest. As Norri and I begin to celebrate his achievement, we see the Amarok start to reverse down the dunes and he lets us know the top gets pretty loose and steep.
Both 4WDs eventually make it to the top of Big Red trying various tracks and I find myself questioning which approach to take. I settle on the far left, although it is the steepest, it is also the straightest meaning no change of direction required.
Norri positions his drone to capture the moment as I move back to give myself a run up five hundred metres longer than I really need. GoPro set and heart racing I launch towards Big Red. Second gear, third gear and then into fourth – this is fastest I have ever approached sand in my life.
Just as I hit the incline I shift down to third to ensure I have revs at my disposal when the sand begins to drain my momentum. I hang on and trust physics, an object in motion wants to stay in motions, as the little WR skips and dances off the ruts and continues to climb.
It’s at this point I make the mistake that robs me of success; I fail to down-shift to second gear and the replay shows when the bike finally stops and lays down for a rest, my hand can literally reach out and touch the crest.
The second attempt is an exact repeat of the first, except I change down to second and easily sail over the soft edge of Big Red. YES!!! I’ve made it, I’ve made it to the top of Big Red and crossed the Simpson Desert.
The celebrations begin with videos, photos and even some drone footage. The sense of accomplishment and exhilaration is unbelievable. I never thought I had the skills or ability to power through over 400 kilometres of sand and climb 1100 sand dunes.
In some ways the three days across the desert reminded me of the organisation I’m raising awareness for, Gotcha4Life. End of day one I felt low, defeated and full of doubts. With the help and support of my mates I rallied on day two, had a new perspective of the situation and even though it was tougher I fought through it. Day three was pure fun and exhilaration as I overcome my fears and complete the challenge.
After an hour or so of celebrating at the top of Big Red we decide the Birdsville Pub was calling our name. We descend the eastern side of Big Red and head towards the pub. The road was in stark contrast to what we had just accomplished with bitumen guiding us the majority of the way.
We are greeted at the pub by some fellow riders who have just completed the crossing and we share stories of our adventures. As a reminder of the dangers of the desert we are told of two riders that have been air-lifted out over the previous two days.
After a couple of local brews we head over to the caravan park to book a site and test out their showers. At check-in we are given a stern warning, “Do not camp near the river, it will be flooding within the next couple of days.”
This was cause for concern, if the Diamantina River floods it cuts the Birdsville Track meaning no way home. We decide to set up camp, enjoy our first shower in a week and head back to the pub for a counter meal.
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