This is Part 2 of our test drive of the Toyota Land Cruiser into the mighty Simpson Desert in Australia. You can see Part 1: Getting there here. We are now getting into the deep end and ready to start the famed crossing. As we described in Part 1, the Simpson Desert is the largest sand dune desert in the world at 176,500 sq km (68,100 sq mi), and contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes (all 1100 of them), oriented along a north-south line across over 800 km. A round 500 km / 310 mi separate Mount Dare to the west from Birdsville to the east for what is the most direct crossing of the Simpson Desert following the French Line for the most part, named this way because the French Petroleum bulldozed the track during seismic surveys in the search for gas and oil in 1963. There is absolutely no human settlement or services at any point across the Desert so you need to be totally self-sufficient for the duration you have planned for the trip – in my case two days, but at least three days are recommended. Please see Part 1 for preparation tips and what is mandatory to bring with you in the car.
But first, why is it called Simpson? Almost a century after the explorer Charles Sturt was the first European to sight the desert in 1844, another explorer, Cecil Madigan coined the name while participating in numerous aerial surveys of the “trackless areas” of Central Australia throughout the 1930s. The Desert is named after Alfred Simpson, the president of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, but also the owner of the Simpson washing machine company. In 1939, Madigan led the first major expedition across the Simpson Desert, although he was not the first non-indigenous person to cross the desert in its entirety, a feat managed by Ted Colson in 1936. In 1962, geologist Reg Sprigg drove the first vehicle to cross the Simpson Desert, a short-wheeled Nissan Patrol G60, accompanied with his wife Griselda and children Marg (10) and Doug (7). It took them 12 days from Andado Station in the Northern Territory to Birdsville in Queensland. This was even before the French Line, further south, was created.
Fast-forward 56 years, and the Simpson Desert has risen to the top of the must-do list for Australian 4WD enthusiasts, with thousands attempting the crossing each year and its length and toughness making it a kind of rite of passage that I can’t wait to pass. The Simpson is closed from December 1 to March 15 because of extreme heat in the height of summer making breakdowns potentially fatal. The best time to travel is May to October so we are right on the mark, entering on June 25. The tracks in the Simpson Desert are not gazetted roads and therefore auto club membership does not cover breakdowns in the desert – recovery is charged $400 per hour coming from either Mount Dare or Birdsville, however the Desert Parks Pass required for entry covers you.
A common pre-conceived idea about the Simpson Desert is that it’s sand dune driving from start to finish. That’s actually not true. After having retraced our steps to overcome the rocky 70 km (45 miles) section from Mount Dare to Dalhousie Springs (we covered this in Part 1), the next 70-odd km up to Purni Bore are actually relatively flat and fast, allowing a 100 km/h (60 mph) maximum speed. That wouldn’t last. After around 50km, I passed one Toyota Hilux with a trailer that had lost a back wheel and was waiting for the rescue truck coming from Mount Dare: one Simpson crossing that didn’t go to plan and a reminder that this is not going to be a smooth ride by any mean.
142 km (90 miles) in, Purni Bore is the spot where 4WD maps (and my Desert whisperer, more on this later) advise to reduce tyre pressure, because that’s what it all begins… I reduced the pressure to 20 psi, 5 psi higher than the 15 psi recommended for sand-driving so I still have room to move if the car is struggling as I cannot re-inflate my tires once in the desert. There are other settings to change on the car when you enter the Simpson Desert – all things that experienced 4WDrivers will take for granted, but still must be listed here – namely the VSC (Vehicle Stability Control) must be turned off otherwise the car will stop right in the middle of a particularly bumpy dune climb thinking you’re spinning out of control and you do not want that (perfect recipe for getting bogged down), the TRC (Traction Control), diff lock and anti-collision systems must also be off. On a Land Cruiser, there is theoretically no need to get the vehicle into low range as the powerful 4.5L V8 engine can handle all climbs and descents on its own. But on almost all other vehicles including the Hilux (which has no V8 variant) you will need to be in low range pretty much the entire trip.
We are immediately met with a 40 km/h (25 mph) speed limit sign, but no need to fear the (elusive?) Simpson Desert Police, there is no way we can even achieve that speed as the sandy track is now almost never flat but a constant succession of bumps that make the car bounce up and down like a true American lowrider hopping car. The only way to prevent the car’s bash plate to hit the next bump with full force, something most cars ahead of me have done joyously looking at the imprints on the ground, is to slow down drastically. Plus once you start climbing each of the 1100 dunes on the track, the bumps also start to work left and right as shown in the video at the start of this article, so the crossing is actually quite physical as I was reminded with a sore back, sides, stomach and arm muscles for a few days after the crossing was completed. You do have to muscle your way across the Simpson Desert!
So what’s the trick to manage 1100 dune crossings without getting bogged? (ok I did get bogged once, literally on the very last dune – true story, more on this later). A lot of it is in the momentum. First, you need to choose a path (= one set of ruts in the sand) and commit to it. Changing ruts will slow down your vehicle and increase the chances of spinning your wheels and getting bogged. Sometimes the deepest ruts are the best, and it usually pays to follow the most trodden path. Then, it’s full speed ahead up until the top of the dune. The first few dunes are a little frazzling as the car is bouncing up and down, left and right and roaring in pain. But a 4WD won’t have too many issues climbing most dunes in the Simpson Desert where the tallest one (Big Red, near Birdsville) towers at a reasonable 40m / 130ft high. If you have a V8 like the Toyota Land Cruiser 70, 200 and previous gen Nissan Patrol, it will be even easier. Reaching each crest is an adrenalin rush and a very satisfying feeling as you discover the landscape over the next few km. Then you need to continue paying attention as you slither down the dune – a steeper slope than the climb when driving East bound. This is where you must make sure your wheels are straight. Sounds obvious? Not so. The weight of the car will make it naturally slide down on a straight line regardless of where your wheels are facing BUT the car will abruptly turn left or right when it regains traction. So straight wheels please. The most challenging part of crossing the Simpson may in the end be the dune climb repetition 1100 times: remaining focused and alert each and every time can be an issue.
And that’s why Google Maps estimates the Simpson crossing will take an out-of-this-world 21h17 mins on our itinerary map further up in the article. Hour after hour I noted the km I managed to clear with the Land Cruiser and throughout the entire 2-day crossing the highest I could get to was 22 km/h. That’s the fastest average speed of the crossing, and trust me, I went as fast as I could in between the dunes and on flat sections as I wanted to avoid spending two nights in a row sleeping in the car. A fast Simpson crossing normally takes three days of driving and two nights under the stars, so I was up against it from the get go. Once Purni Bore is cleared, we enter the French Line for the next 195 km. And although it looks perfectly straight on the map (ah the laziness of the cartographers!) it does have a few quirks at and around each dune where the cars have found the easiest passage – a moving target.
The Simpson Desert is home to very scarce wildlife. The most noticeable is the dingo, a breed of free-ranging dogs native to Australia we first met when test driving the Toyota Hilux on Fraser Island on the Australian east coast. They are the largest terrestrial predator in Australia and have a prominent role in Aboriginal culture. A few of them led the way at a safe distance ahead of us, stopping regularly to make sure we were on the right track. But the most endearing sign the dingos left for us to see was delicate paw prints on every single dune slope in the morning. Relatively flat compared to the rest of the terrain, the track is indeed their favourite path to roam the desert at night. My (only) night spent in the desert was at Colson Junction in complete remoteness and darkness… and relatively chilly temperatures. I was expecting to have all the room in the world in the flattened back of a 4.95m long vehicle, once the backseats are lowered, but no. The back seats don’t lower, they fold, meaning you only save half the space and I can’t lie down completely. Fail. Except honestly, if you can afford a Land Cruiser you probably won’t ever consider sleeping in it. So there, not really a fail.
Now onto an important question. What are the cars that have secured membership in the exclusive Simpson Desert crossing club? This is a 4WD-only track of course, and frankly I would not dare attempt the crossing in anything less than a fully capable four paws. A V8 is the best, and that’s why Pasha our Land Cruiser 200 is at home in the Simpson alongside the Land Cruiser 70, the two most frequent nameplates I’ve encountered here. Close behind are the Toyota Prado and Hilux. The only non-Toyota full-size SUV is the Nissan Patrol, the most powerful of them, while I also spotted a sprinkle of Toyota FJ Cruiser. Also trustworthy in this neck of the (deserted) woods are 4×4 pickups such as the Isuzu D-Max, Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50. And that’s it. No one else is allowed in this select club. But one very important note to this list is that absolutely all vehicles I saw in the Simpson had quite significant modifications, starting with bull bars, lifts, 4WD tyres, etc. And that’s what’s making this Land Cruiser test drive truly interesting: it shows the capabilities of a stock-standard vehicle straight from the factory and without any “free passes”. I even had slick tires. I have put it through its paces over a thousand dunes without a smidge of protest by the vehicle, and soon it will – unexpectedly – be thrown deep into the mud. Yessir.
340 km (211 mi) in, we hit the end of the French Line and a location called Poeppel Corner. We’ve been to Cameron Corner in a Haval H9 before, it’s another one of a few “Corners” in Australia (see map above) that mark the intersection of three States. Poeppel is where the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland all meet. As we experienced in Cameron Corner in 2017, New Year’s Eve occurs here three times each year at thirty minute intervals because it is at the intersection of three time zones. Fun! I have mentioned earlier a Desert whisperer, and it’s now time to introduce Ben Fullagar, the General Manager of the Birdsville Hotel, who has been so kind as to provide a constant flow of advice to best prepare and complete this Simpson Desert crossing. The wooden plank to jack up the car on sand? That’s Ben. The turned off instruments and 5 psi tire pressure differential trick in the absence of tire inflator: Ben again. We had agreed to meet at Poeppel Corner and given there’s only one track there’s no way we can miss each other but Ben isn’t here. Ominous clouds at the horizon remind me that the Park Ranger at the start of the crossing in Dalhousie Springs said some tracks were closed near Birdsville due to flooding. I didn’t pay much attention then but am now starting to think there is trouble ahead which prevented Ben from driving across. I was right.
Although I never had to face any rain during the trip, it did rain, lots, just ahead of me on the track, even though rain traditionally falls in summer here and we are in the middle of winter. Later in Birdsville I would learn that before today, not a single drop had been recorded since September last year – so for the entire duration of summer – that’s 10 months prior. I’m always lucky like that: it also rained heavily and for the first time in months before I hit the Birdsville Track in a Haval H8 in May 2016 and while reaching Cameron Corner in a Haval H9 in December 2016. Some ravines in between the dunes qualify as creeks, which one hardly notices in dry times but they become a treacherous maze after heavy rains. If rain actually makes sand dune crossing easier by compacting the sand into a solid mass, the opposite is true for creeks, subject to flash flooding. And quite unexpectedly after clearing over 1000 dunes without any trouble, here came the most challenging two hours of driving of this Simpson crossing. It’s not mud I faced, but viscous and incredibly slippery clay. In the space of a few minutes and a couple of creeks, I came to dread the colour of the earth changing from red (easy sand) to grey (clay hell).
Driving on mud is an experience I already have under my belt, the main learning being that it’s not you that drives the car but the main ruts you are following that do the driving for you. To veer the car left you need to move the wheel to the right and vice-versa (simple!) and forget about any type of tight control you may have over the car because it’s gone. Very counter-intuitive and stressful but efficient. But this was another story altogether. The Land Cruiser’s weight (2750 kg, 6000 lb) gave it a lot of inertia on slippery surfaces, accentuating the slides. Twice the car slipped to a perpendicular position to the track. As the sun was setting and the creeks became trickier to clear, I fleetingly envisaged the pain it would be to get bogged here and have to spend the night without being able to step out of the car, surrounded by 2-feet deep liquid clay. Unfortunately I have no pics of the ordeal, only “after” muddy shots (above) as I was too busy keeping the car in line to snap anything. The toughest was Eyre Creek, a full km of clay up to the car’s grille that seemed to last for a hundred times longer, but then it got better. That’s when I finally met Ben from the Birdsville Hotel. He told me his Hilux had started to hit the ground in that very Eyre Creek and he turned back as he couldn’t go any further. That’s why these mid-term test drives are invaluable: they enable me to uncover behaviours that match the lifetime use of a car, and today it was demonstrated to me by A+B that the Land Cruiser has:
- Higher ground clearance and stronger passing abilities in flooded areas than a lifted Hilux, achieved with a stock standard vehicle
- 4WD capabilities that are available to every level of experience: no need to be a 4WD nut to benefit from them
Of course, following a professional to complete the crossing for the last 50 km, I did lose a bit of concentration and took the wrong climbing path on the very last dune of the crossing (after roughly 1099!), getting myself well and truly bogged down to a point that not even the two Maxtrax recovery tracks and energetic shovelling could save. I had to be towed out of it in reverse by Ben and his Hilux. Yep, I’m not proud of this moment but given there are no pictures to prove it we will just pretend it never happened and focus instead on the fact that I have just crossed the Simpson Desert!
But this doesn’t end our coverage of the Simpson Desert crossing as there is also Big Red, the highest dune in the desert, to conquer. Stay tuned for the third and final iteration of this series coming soon.