I fly in to Alice. A short drive from the airport and we’re on the Tanami Road, heading into the remote desert north of Alice Springs. Suddenly I’m in another world. Am I ready? My mind is still in Pennyroyal with our farm, the cows, dogs, chooks, geese. Even the wellbeing of the bees in our hives gets a fleeting thought.
We camp the night at Tilmouth Well. It’s winter in the red centre and oh, so cold. Mint and rosemary lamb chops sizzle on the campfire grill. The hot meal and layer upon layer of clothing are our attempt to ward off the cold.
It’s Territory Day. The only day of the year it’s legal to set off fireworks without a permit. What a shame we don’t have any. After dinner we leave the warmth of the fire to explore a dry sandy creek bed running alongside the campsite. A secretive Howard runs ahead, on a mission. What is he up to? The dark night explodes with a spinning sputtering wheel of light and we cheer! Fireworks! Vive le Territory!
Our cosy camper feels more like an icebox when we retire to bed. I’m under the doona fully clothed, wearing the hood up on my fleecy hoodie against the chill. But sleep comes quickly and soon the icy cold night breaks into a clear bright day. Lying in bed I pull out Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, my choice of reading for this trip. In the first chapter I read how aboriginal myths describe the creation of the world. They believe their dreamtime ancestors walked through the country singing the land and all that lived in it into being. I love this idea. Life from song.
Humming Nessun Dorma I quietly sing this day into life. I climb out of the camper and line up my wash bag contents on the rickety little camp table. The sun shines through the gum trees. Its weak rays carry the promise of warmer weather. I splash icy water onto my face and shock my system awake to start the day. Time to head north.
Here’s a missing post that was written on our second day in the Simpson Desert. It didn’t make it up on to the blog, so it’s a bonus for you today.
Refreshed from a night of deep sleep in the warm, dry desert air, we breakfast quickly and make an early start on the road again.
Once again we are making our way over and across the parallel waves of sand. The dunes rise and fall in front of us, creating a rhythm of their own. The rhythm is hypnotic, up and down, up and down. We become part of the song of the desert as we climb to the crest of each dune and then drop away to the trough. The note of the engine rises and falls as gears change. The drivers are focused, selecting the right gear, choosing the best track to make their way over the dunes. They cannot help but move to the beat of the desert’s song.
It is a beautiful song. Red sienna dunes rise from grey sandy troughs. Clawed tree branches clutch at the pastel blue sky. The colours change in time with the rhythm created by the shape of the land. Up and down, up and down. As we drive deeper into the desert, the colours grow more intense. The channels between the dunes are dotted with squat bonsai-like trees, yellow flowers in silvery grey foliage. The desert is beautiful but hers is a harsh environment. To survive here, plants must live in an arid sandy soil under the fierce glare of the sun. They defend themselves from dehydyration by growing a silvery armour on their leaves and holding on tightly to any water that falls, storing it within. Life in the desert is always on her terms.
We cross paths with a group of fellow travellers in Land Rovers. They have decided to ignore some of the desert park rules and are not pleased to be reminded of them. Live and let live, but safety must come first in the desert. You can lose your life here, or cause others to lose theirs.
As the the sun rises into the sky, the colours around us deepen. The sand blushes in pastel red and orange hues, complimented by the milky blue sky. And still the rhythm of the dunes beats on, up and down, up and down.
We lunch quickly, keen to make progress on our journey, impatient to rejoin the hypnotic rhythm. We drive on. In the early afternoon we come to the first of many salt lakes, empty estuaries that are part of the great inland water system that runs into Lake Eyre. Lake Eyre is fed by a network of channels and waterways that stretches all the way to the East coast of Australia and far to the North and South. It may be the last truly unregulated lake catchment system in the world. Water flows as nature intended, as it has for millions of years. For now, the salt lakes are dry and wait patiently for water to come. Salt has crystallised on the exposed surface of the lakes, forming a crisp white crust that is strangely reminiscent of an early fall of snow in colder climates.
The lakes break the rhythm of the dunes. They are flat and even. We drive across them with ease. The pure white of the salt contrasts with the red sand and sparkles in the bright sun light. Here and there the pristine salt surface of the lakes has been disturbed by the tyre tracks of errant drivers. Man leaves his mark.
The coloured sand flags on our vehicles wave to and fro as we drive around Lake Poeppel to Poeppel’s Corner where three state lines meet. We find the marker post and prove that it is possible to have your photo taken with one arm in Queensland, one arm in the Northern Territory and your legs in South Australia. This is most impressive when it is achieved by lying stomach down on the marker pole, legs and arms stretched out like a starfish. Those who attempted this will take home an unexpected souvenir, an imprint of three state names on the sensitive skin of their stomachs. But it had to be done!
At Poeppel corner we leave the QAA Line for the French Line. “Ooh la la!” Time for a little French over the radio. We are soon put in our place by the support truck for a group of motorbikers crossing the Simpson from West to East. “You’re not the only ones using this channel you know.” “Quelle dommage…”
As the afternoon draws on, the sky fills with hundreds of flat bottomed clouds, brilliant white on top and a dusky pink grey below. Is it going to rain? We rejoin the rhythm of the dunes, up and down, up and down, rock and roll, rock and roll. Red sands blush more deeply and clumps of bright yellow flowers add another colour to the desert mix.
It is time to call it a day and we pull in to a perfect camp spot. The fire is soon alight and we end the day with a camp oven roast, much laughter and Malcolm’s memorable impersonation of Elvis Presley. The evening is cut short by a shower of unexpected desert rain. We take to the shelter of our tents and lie in bed listening to the sound of raindrops as the subliminal background rhythm of the desert beats on.
By Christine Smith
The softness of a dressing gown
Dyed in the hues of the desert
Suzanne, yes I did notice
Your nurturing hands releasing
Our survival kits to adventure
“Bon Voyage would-be Diggers”.
The Prison of Warwick weeps
Across lushness, green
Who invented the bars of exclusion?
Autumn leaves scatter with tourists roaming
That extra H of Hahndorf
Echoes the bells of Europe
The gulping of beer,
The ode to holidays
Tempts the thirst
Across hills of vineyards
As the Pen folds onto the
Chalice of Cab Sav and twisted sheets
Lutheran dreams and Hans Heysen landscapes
Where knarled Herbnick eyes gaze hollowed,
as the Cornish leave rugged cliffs for
Their burrows to copper as we
Would be Diggers are lulled by giant wind gods
While McCartney unplugged harmonises
With Ulolooloo, Orroroo and Wallaway hey hey,
Cupp’d or cocktails? Hey hey hey!
Yes, I am serious
The hub of the Flinders
Is not the Hawker of barking dogs and whinging toms
But Jeff Morgan’s palette of
Sharpened ridges and smokey grey ranges
Compared with undies drying on the dash
Framing a landscape
Is this the moon?
Roads forget their fences as
I breathe in wilderness
Brachina gorge collects 520 million
Years of existence as trees
Line the hills like Sydney bridge climbers
Back on track
The land flattens like a
Giant pancake to laughing skies
Red gibbers shine their tongues to
The ancestors of rivers and wind
Farina beckons an ancient oven
Of cream buns and
Hollowed corridors embrace ceilings of stars
A heart broken mother in the loss of your son
Beloved sons and daughters
This is the wilderness
The breath of the Outback.
One week on the road. Our normal lives feel so distant, it is hard to imagine being anywhere but here.
The desert grows more beautiful day by day. The rippling sand dunes are now covered with lush green vegetation. Recent rains have brought the desert to life. Two jet black eagles sit regally on a dune, watching us pass by. Their dark forms silhouetted against the red sand. Smaller birds twitter as they fly through the desert’s wild flower meadows. Flowers, grasses and small acacias populate the dunes, artfully planted it appears, as if to win a native garden show.
The bleached tops of cane grass tufts sprout like whiskers on the banks of the dunes. Purple flowers blend with clumps of native spinifex. A solitary kangaroo hops slowly away then turns to watch us from his garden home. There is plenty here for us all, he seems to say.
This truly is a botanist’s paradise. I lose count of the different species of flowers, shrubs and trees that we pass by. Bright yellow flowers dominate entire dune banks. From the viewing point on top of the higher dunes we see the desert garden stretching far into the distance on all points of the compass. Grey, green, yellow stripes on powder red sand.
Look, a dingo, clearly visible with her blonde fur against the colours of the desert. She looks at us, tongue lolling from her mouth, then walks away. There is plenty here for us all, she seems to say. Food is abundant for plant, animal and bird life after the rains.
As we drive towards Purni Bore, where we will eat lunch, we notice the land flattening. We are not yet out of the desert, but we are leaving her heart behind. We enjoy the luxury of a new shower and toilet block at Purni Bore and then drive on the flat pan, away from the dunes.
The soft sand is but a memory as we travel on rock strewn roads through the flattest country. In the distance we can see the flat topped mountains of the Emery Range. Our tyres are soft. The pressure was reduced to drive better on sand. We now begin to grow concerned that the rocks may cause a puncture. As it happens, the only casualty is our sand flag, that flies away, heading back to the desert’s heart. We understand the desire to return.
We drive forward on the rocky roads to Dalhousie Springs. The hot springs here are naturally created by water being forced up from the Great Artesian Basin that lies below us. This water is heated by high temperatures in the earth’s core and emerges at the surface at a comfortable 36-38 degrees. Time for a hot bath! We jump in and wash off the desert dust.
Out of Dalhousie Springs the roads are corrugated and rocky. It’s is not a comfortable ride. We stop off for a brief respite at Opossum watering hole. A sign reminds us that this is a significant place for aboriginal people. The magical stories of the Dreaming converge on watering holes such as this that have been used for thousands of years. It is easy to understand why.
Back on the rocky road, shaken but not stirred, we drive the last stretch of the day to Mount Dare. The red clay roads are deeply rutted. A final driving challenge before we camp and enjoy the hospitality of the Mount Dare Hotel.
Legs of the desert
by Max Smith
Over the rolling sand dunes
In a land that’s deemed so harsh
With a band of intrepid travellers
That all came from Deans Marsh
Through grit and determination
And working as a team
The achievement of these people
Was something to be seen
From dodging rutting camels
And eating such hard cakes
The lifting of ones spirits
Is what this land doth make
While sitting round the camp fire
When all of us are at rest
The joy of meeting new faces
And being put to a test
Will always be a memory
Until I’m laid to rest.