For a lot of people, the Simpson Desert is the final frontier when it comes to 4WD adventure and exploration. Though it’s not for the faint hearted or the inexperienced, with scorching sun even in winter, extreme remoteness, and nowhere to stop for fuel or water along many of the tracks, you need to be a prepared and experienced 4WDer. We’ve put together our ultimate guide to the Simpson Desert and some of the more popular tracks to get your trip planning started.
When To Go
If you’re heading into the Simpson Desert your time frame is fairly limited as the desert is closed during summer (between October and May), due to the extreme heat. Though this doesn’t mean that travelling between May and October is easy going. During this time, temperatures range between 30 degrees Celsius during the day and 4 degrees Celsius overnight. So, you’ll need to be prepared for both extremes.
How Long To Explore The Simpson
The time you need to explore The Simpson often depends on the track you want to do. Being such a harsh, unforgiving environment there isn’t much room for ‘winging it’ when it comes to deciding on a timeframe to explore the desert.
Depending on what track you want to do will dictate how long you’re spending out in the desert. The French Line can be done in as few as three or four days but if you’re looking to tackle the Hay River Track, you’ll be needing upwards of nine or ten. Many of these travel times do not include getting to or from the start and end destinations.
To be able to tackle the Simpson Desert safely your vehicle needs to be incredibly well prepared. It is not a trip for novice 4WDers. Your vehicle not only needs to be extremely capable in off road conditions but needs to be able to carry all the supplies and gear you’ll need. When choosing a vehicle to traverse the Simpson, a 4WD with low range capabilities is essential.
The size of your vehicle also needs to be taken into consideration. As there are no fuel and water facilities along the track you need to be able to take enough fuel and water, so you don’t get stranded. Carrying all this liquid adds a considerable amount of weight to your vehicle and is something else you’ll need to think about when deciding on what supplies to bring.
As all the Simpson Desert tracks are off road you will need to have recovery gear, and it is highly recommended that you’re travelling with at least one other vehicle so, in case of emergency, they can help you out. Having a full recovery kit, including traction aids and some form satellite or emergency communication on hand and easily accessible is another necessity on any of the desert tracks. Included in your recovery gear should be a whole range of spare car parts, in case you need to do a bit of on-the-road-mechanics.
While there are many tracks and lines through the Simpson Desert, we’ve decided to focus on a few of the most popular and well traversed ones. For more information on any of the tracks we mention or any of the other routes through the Simpson, we recommend checking out HEMA’s Guides or ExplorOz.
Hay River Track
Located in the northern Simpson Desert, the Hay River Track stretches from Jervois Station in the Northern Territory to Poeppel Corner in Queensland. One of the shorter tracks in the Simpson, the track itself can be done in as little as four days though it pays to allocate another few days either side to get from Alice Springs to Jervois Station and from Poeppel Corner to Birdsville once the track has finished.
Coming up from Alice Springs, it starts at Jervois Station, a large working cattle station in the Northern Territory. Jervois Station is the last place to get fuel and some supplies before you reach Birdsville. The last campsite before you hit the Hay River Track, Batton Hill is about 80km from the Plenty Highway and is the last place to use a toilet, shower and refill water supplies before you venture into the desert.
The Hay River Track itself is a well-defined track that passes through plains of mostly low grasses and spinifex. The first landmark you’ll come across on the track is the Tropic of Capricorn. A latitudinal line that crosses Australia, and is marked by a small, worn sign on the edge of the track. From here it’s worth venturing the approximately 10km detour from the track to pass Lake Caroline. This soft, sandy drive is fun but is taxing on your fuel reserves so it always pays to pack a few extra litres should you want to explore this area.
Back on the main track there are no designated campsites, but bush camping is available wherever you choose to setup your camp. It always pays to setup camp earlier rather than later to avoid having to setup in the dark. As the Hay River Track continues, the Hay riverbed turns into a series of narrow creek beds and eventually arrives at Madigan’s camps 15 and 16 – where the Hay River Track intersects the Madigan Line.
As you continue to follow the track south, it becomes less creek bed and more sand dune. This is good though, as there are some great campsites between these massive dunes. Some of these dune crossings are tricky but with an experienced driver and a bit of help available should you get stuck; you shouldn’t have an issue. Eventually you’ll come to Poeppel Corner which, though it’s officially located in Queensland, is the point where South Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory meet. To get to Birdsville from Poeppel Corner you’ll need to merge onto the QAA Line and follow it across the Queensland border and into Birdsville.
The French Line & Rig Road
Though the French Line is the shortest and most direct route across the Simpson Desert it does not mean it’s for novice drivers. With a high volume of people traversing this single lane track in both directions, the French Line crosses about 1200 sand dunes at a right angle. This high traffic volume is also due to a portion of the French Line being shared with Rig Road.
Both the French Line and Rig Road start at Purni Bore in South Australia, which has the last camping facilities before you hit the track, and end in Birdsville. Though if you’re heading to Purni Bore, Mt. Dare is worth a stop on the way to have a meal, grab some supplies and fill up your fuel tanks. If you’re after a spot to swim or want to see an interesting natural phenomenon, we’d recommend a stop at Dalhousie Springs. It may not be much of a cool off though, as the natural hot springs range between 38 and 43 degrees Celsius.
Following the French Line from Purni Bore, it’s almost a straight shot to Poeppel Corner across sand dunes and stunning desert scenery. Like the Hay River Track, there are no official campsites along the track, but bush camping is permitted so finding a calm spot between sand dunes isn’t hard. From Poeppel Corner, the French Line takes a hard-left turn following the K1 Line before taking a right turn and following the QAA Line to Birdsville.
Like the French Line, Rig Road also leaves civilisation at Purni Bore in South Australia and is the most southern and longest route across the desert. Once, Rig Road was the easiest Simpson Desert track to traverse, but now the clay on the surface of the sand tracks has long eroded, making it soft and tricky to navigate. Originally built to allow trucks access to oil mining and exploration areas, Rig Road is a well-worn road and perfect for bigger rigs without loosing that feeling of remoteness that sometimes happens with the popularity of the French Line in peak season.
Rig Road starts on the same track as the French Line before veering off onto the actual Rig Road, it then meanders further south into the South Australian portion of the Simpson Desert. Eventually you’ll need to join onto the K1 track which takes you sharply north back up to Poeppel Corner. Like the French Line, from here you merge back onto the QAA Line for a straight shot to Birdsville.
If it’s remoteness and a real challenge you’re after the Madigan Line is the way to go. Following the route explorer Cecil Madigan forged on his 1939 expedition, it links the Hay River Track in the east and the Colson Track in the west. Like many of the Simpson Desert tracks, most travellers tend to travel west to east, to make driving over the dunes easier. Unlike many of the Simpson Desert tracks there will be many occasions on the Madigan Line where there is no discernible track or wheel tracks, so a GPS is a must.
Like the French Line and Rig Road, the Madigan Line runs from Mt. Dare to Birdsville. It can be done in 5 days though like all these desert routes, it pays to plan for an extra few in the case of bad conditions, slower than usual drives and the odd recovery. While bush camping is available along the Madigan Line, there are many marked, numbered campsites along the way that signify historical points from Cecil Madigan’s original 1939 journey. These campsites are marked with small plaques on yellow painted pickets, though some of these can be a little difficult to find.
If a bit of history is what you’re after, the Madigan Line is the way to go. Following the footsteps of Cecil Madigan, if you turn south at camp 15 and journey to camp 16, you can see Madigan’s Blazed Tree, a historical marker of his original journey. As you continue along the line, camps 18-24 are on private land, so you’ll have to head south to join the Hay River Track and then pick up the QAA line to Birdsville.
Things to Bring
- A sand flag is a necessity in the Simpson Desert. With thousands of dunes to cross, a sand flag is essential for visibility and protects not only you but anyone who might be coming over the same dune.
- A UHF Radio set to channel 10 is another essential piece of kit to ensure the safety of not only yourself, but oncoming or following vehicles. Having a UHF radio means you’re able to get in contact with oncoming vehicles and reach out to anyone if you get stuck.
- With no phone reception you need to have a way to contact other travellers and rescue services should the worst happen. This can include satellite phones, UHF radios or an emergency GPS rescue button.
- Taking your own fuel and water is a must when crossing the Simpson Desert. Calculating how much extra to take is when things can get tricky. For water, the recommended amount is 7 litres of water per person per day, plus enough water to sustain you for an extra 7 days in case of emergency. Calculating fuel needs depends on your vehicle, petrol vs diesel, and adjusting that amount to account for sand and off-road driving. Typically, people tend to double their rig’s normal track fuel consumption. Though no one knows your rig better than yourself, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.
- When driving on tracks and soft sand you’ll need to air down your tyres. Having an air compressor on hand makes airing tyres up and down easy no matter where you are. It also means you can keep on top of tyre pressure to avoid any accidents on the road.
At the beginning and end of most tracks there are designated campsites or roadhouses with bathroom, shower, barbeque, water, and often fuel facilities. Most of these roadhouses often sell some supplies though it’s always better to be stocked up beforehand as desert prices can get high.
Along all the tracks bush camping is the way to go. With no designated campsites, if you’re following all the desert and national park rules, bush camping is allowed. Because you’ll be spending so much time off grid, a reliable 12v power setup is an essential. Having a setup you know is not going to fail means you’ll never be stranded with a flat starter battery or a GPS that won’t work. The REDARC Manager30 is a handy piece of 12v kit that not only allows you to keep your auxiliary battery topped up from either solar or alternator charge, but means you can monitor your battery levels so you know their exact state of charge and are never left with a flat battery.
Because the tracks in the Simpson Desert are so rough and remote, towing of any variety is not recommended so you’ll need a reliable camping setup. Towing eats up massive amounts of fuel and can make crossing sand dunes much more of a challenge than it needs to be.
- When looking to cross the Simpson Desert, any experienced traveller will tell you it’s easiest to cross from west to east. This is due to the way the winds blow and makes driving over any sand dunes a whole lot easier. Though many people do choose to cross the tracks from east to west, just know you will be up against a much steeper dune crossing.
- Fly veils are a must. In the desert, even in the middle of winter, flies are abundant and if you don’t want them in your mouth, ears, and eyes a fly veil is the way to go.
- Beware of dust and sand. While on the tracks it will get into everything, so it pays to make sure that all your gear is securely packed and sealed because there’s nothing worse than sand in your food or bedding.
- Tighten all nuts and bolts on your vehicle before going as they can loosen due to vibrations from the corrugated road and bumpy dunes.
- Plan, research, and book all permits in advance. The Simpson Desert isn’t a trip you can just ‘wing’. Because of the remoteness you want to make sure that everything is scheduled and planned well in advance, so you don’t miss out and so, in case of emergency, someone knows where you are.
- When refilling your fuel tanks ready to take on the tracks, fill up in Oodnadatta, Mt. Dare, or Birdsville. While it’s cheaper to fill up in larger towns, the wear and tear of carrying that extra weight for long distances on your car is not worth it. Especially when you want your car to be in tip top shape for the journey ahead.
- Make sure your sand and track driving skills are up to date. With so many sand dunes to cross and tracks to explore your driving skills and knowledge will need to be honed and practiced.
We hope our guide to the Simpson Desert has made planning your next desert adventure a little easier or inspired you to learn a little more about what it takes to cross the desert. If youre looking to explore another iconic 4WD location, check out our Ultimate Guide to Cape York. For more information on Poeppel Corner, one of the major sites in the Simpson Desert, check out All 4 Adventure's video below.