Join Kalen as he tags along with the Offroad Adventure Show for his first Simpson Desert crossing in the Club 4X4 Ranger Raptor.
There’s just something special about the remoteness and quintessentially Australian beauty of an outback desert. I first had a teaser about 5 years ago when I attended the Big Red Bash and drove into the Simpson for about 40 or so dunes. Ever since that moment, standing atop a dune and looking out into the distance at twilight, crossing the Simpson Desert became a firm bucket list trip for me.
A short while I ago, I finally had the opportunity to do just that, tagging along with the crew from The Offroad Adventure Show on a filming trip for Season 8. It was reassuring to know that I’d be with experienced people, but what I was really craving was the quiet and solitude that only time behind the wheel of a fourby in remote Australia can offer.
There’s a lot of literature out there that covers such a trip, and many will be a lot more comprehensive than this one, but here I’ll focus on my personal experience of experiencing the depths of the Simpson Desert for the first time. I hope you enjoy it and would love your thoughts in the comments below.
This was an experience in itself, with major rainfall delaying the original plans significantly, I went to the 2022 Brisbane 4X4 Show knowing I could then spend some time in our call centre in Maroochydore and head back home at the end of the week. This changed on the Saturday of the Brisbane Show, with the roads leading into the desert opening up unexpectedly. Nothing like a surprise, right? The crew were meeting in Marree just over a week later. To make it, I would’ve had to cut my trip short and the Ranger Raptor wouldn’t be able to go in for a pre-trip service. Further to that, all other aspects of prep would also be rushed, not something I really wanted to do. So, I decided I’d meet the team at their next stop, Birsdville.
Given I was on a timeline, I left Sydney and took the quickest route to get there. With overnight stops at Bourke and Windorah then on to Birdsville, it was relatively easy driving with only the trek from Windorah to Birdsville being on very well graded gravel on the Birdsville Developmental Road.
With the toing and froing of closed roads and the fact I was up in Brissie, prep time was very limited. The first and most important thing was to get the Ranger Raptor in for a service. The team at Power Ford Castle Hill gave it a thorough pre-trip check. Ultimately it was a full service, plus a change of the rear brake pads and a full rotation and balance of the wheels as I was feeling a little vibration come through at highway speeds. I also asked them to provide me with a spare set of radiator hoses, a fuel, air, and oil filter, along with some spare coolant and oil. Thankfully, I never needed any of these items, but it sure helps to be prepared given the remoteness of travel.
I was lucky in that the trip was catered, but I did take myself plenty of drinking water (3 bottles of 750mL for each day in the desert itself; I’m not a huge water drinker) and some protein-based snacks (plus plenty of driving goodies 😊) in case I needed it. Given I was travelling alone, the only camping gear I needed was my trusty Darche swag, stretcher, sleeping bag and chair, along with a 10L jerry of water for washing and emergencies. My intention was to run light for this trip, so everything was accounted for specifically, based on my individual needs.
Given the Ranger Raptor doesn’t have long range fuel tanks, I went with jerry cans to supplement my trip. I was aiming at having 600kms of range, calculating a 30% variance in my normal fuel consumption figures. Given my daily rate is about 13L/100km, I figured I’d be running at 16.9L/100km on the sand. This calculated out to just over 100L. Given the factory 80L tank, I decided to take 2 extra 20L jerry cans just to be safe as there aren’t any servos in the Simo! Ultimately, I arrive at Mt Dare with a quarter tank of fuel or about 20L left, which means my calculations were pretty much bang on. I’m quite chuffed with that, especially given the impressive performance of the 2.0L Ford EcoBlue twin-turbo diesel engine and 10-speed automatic gearbox combo on the soft sand, and that I was regularly relied upon for recoveries as one of the lighter vehicles in a pretty large convoy.
I also took various types of emergency communication devices with me, which I’ll write about separately. Obviously, first and foremost, our inbuilt Uniden UHF was our main communication channel once we left mobile phone reception behind. This was supplemented by a SPOT Gen4 Satellite GPS Messenger (available on Safety Shop) and a Thuraya satellite phone. In combination, these provided a layer of comfort in providing multiple ways to make contact in an emergency, both with those in my convoy and the outside world.
Onwards to Birdsville
I did have a last-minute call to pick up some spare parts for a vintage Chevrolet Blitz truck that was going to undertake the trip with us, which only tightened the timeline. As such, the trip to Birdsville was really a matter of setting the quickest Google Maps route with accommodation at each stop. Sounds weird, but it did work, and compared to the Hema, which I was running concurrently, it did get me there quicker. I was, however, checking various local website for road closures and would recommend the same for anyone reading this as Google isn’t always the most reliable in the outback and remember, if you cancel the trip when you’re out of reception, you won’t be able to restart it!
I want to give a huge shoutout to the team at The Western Star Hotel in Windorah; I love this spot! There is always a fantastic meal and a couple of cold ales, which was particularly refreshing after a 10-hour driving day. Their recently added cabins out the back were clean, well presented and a great place for a restful night’s sleep.
Following a quick lunch stop at the Betoota Hotel, which had opened for business since I’d been up there last, I continued on the Birdsville Developmental Road until I reached the famous Birdsville Hotel.
There is something about that intersection that lets you know inside that you’ve arrived somewhere special. This was also the first time I’ve stayed at the hotel, again a great comfy spot as an option should you need it.
That afternoon and the next day was spent working on the Chevy Blitz, preparing it for the long trek across the desert. I can’t say too much until the episodes air, but there was a head gasket and lots of busted knuckles involved in the process!
Originally, we were supposed to come in from Mt Dare and cross from west to east, giving some of the larger and older vehicles an easier trek across thanks to prevailing winds making dunes less steep on the western approach, but with the closures and timing, this changed to the opposite. Dropping in over Big Red never gets old, nor does the amazing vista that greets you. Nothing prepares you for the scenery out here, nor does anything really compare in my opinion.
The first half of the day was filming on Big Red and shaking down the various vehicles before we got too far from civilization, which was especially important for our veteran off-road rigs in the aforementioned Chevy Blitz and a Series 1 Land Rover. Some made it, others didn’t, but what I found interesting was taking it on in the Ranger Raptor. I thought it would do it easy first go. The last time I attempted this was in the old Club 4X4 Mobile HQ GU Patrol, powered by a 3.0L Nissan ZD30 diesel engine and 4-speed automatic gearbox. In the Patrol, it was a low range, rear diff lock affair, and it did it pretty easily with the tyres down to 25psi, although it took me 2 attempts to get it right. The Ranger Raptor took 3 goes, but my ego took many more hits! The first 2 attempts were in low range where I only just ran out of momentum right at the top. The 3rd time, I left it in high range, engaged sand mode and held 3rd gear, and it floated up with no stress. It’s not the machine, it’s the driver, but also what the driver can do when you truly understand the machine. I engaged low range only a handful of times on the trip and most of the time it was when I was recovering other vehicles.
One thing that everyone noted was just how tough going it was. We were on the easiest line, the QAA and later French. Yes, we had some very old vehicles and a couple that were towing trailers, but the sand was incredibly soft on the eastern side of the dunes. Some had actually been partially reclaimed, presumably due to the lower amount of traffic over the last couple of years. This meant really slow going at times to get everyone through and over, and it wasn’t uncommon for particularly difficult dunes to eat up an hour or more of time.
After a long, hard first day in the Simpson Desert, we reached our first bush camp off the QAA Line under the cover of darkness. There was a bit more work to be done on the Chevy Blitz, but for most of us, this was a quiet night of rest with a galactic show airing on the exceptionally clear desert sky.
Our trip across the Simpson Desert with the Offroad Adventure Show has just begun and you’ve done well getting this far, but if you’re itching for more, CLICK HERE to check out Part 2 that takes us through to Mt Dare.