Across a Thousand Dunes: A Record-Breaking Trek Across the Simpson Desert

m1216_ft_deserttrex_i-a4b703f8-621d-495b-bf75-bdd9776be3e8
 Photograph by Ryan Claypool

One of the world's most forbidding landscapes is 68,000 square miles of scorched Australian outback called the Simpson Desert. Last August, the writer and his partner set out to cross it unassisted by foot — one parched, arduous step at a time.

"You guys are totally nuts!" The driver blurted out as he pulled his four-wheel drive next to our carts and jumped out to shake our hands. We were some 300 miles deep into our walk across Australia's Simpson Desert, and he was the first stranger we'd seen in days.

His reaction was not particularly surprising, and to be honest, he had a point.

There aren't many great reasons to cross a desert on foot. I am not a glutton for punishment, though walking across Australia's most parched region without support certainly implies it. What reason is there to pull 400 pounds of cargo across (literally) a thousand steep dunes in wretched heat for more than 300 miles?

Err . . . because it's there?

I have generally favored ice deserts because there is plenty of water to drink, even if it has to be melted. In the heat, water — storing, carrying, and rationing it — becomes the crux of the mission. The Simpson is so dry and inhospitable it's often referred to as "the dead heart of Australia." In the summer, the government has closed it to humans, since temperatures soar well over 120 degrees daily. Kangaroos want little to do with it, but many snakes call it home, including the inland taipan — so deadly it has been said that one bite's worth of venom could kill a hundred grown men. The Simpson distinguishes itself with its multitude of sand dunes and what amounts to the world's largest parallel-dune desert.

My travel partner was Mark George, a Melbourne adventurer whose career in finance has done a poor job of suppressing his thirst for expeditions. Mark is still up for anything, including joining me on an unsupported crossing of the North Pole this coming winter. The Simpson, we reasoned, would give us a chance to test our new partnership; define our strengths and weaknesses; streamline our systems; and, most important, acquaint ourselves with the snores and smells of the oh-so-intimate tent life.

With all that in mind, trekking across a desert in Mark's backyard sounded almost reasonable. After all, I'd spent years traveling in the harshest polar conditions. How tough could it be when you're wearing shorts and sunscreen?

Plenty tough, as it turns out.

The Simpson had been crossed a handful of times, starting with Ted Colson, who ventured from the west with an Aboriginal man and some camels in 1936. The number of people taking on the dunes without support is very short. It was not until 1984 that legendary outback bushman Denis Bartell managed the first solo crossing from west to east, a 245-mile, three-week journey that relied on old Aboriginal wells for water. In 2006, Lucas Trihey completed the first unsupported water-hauling latitudinal crossing, followed by Michael Giacometti, who in 2008 reversed that axis (280 miles east to west), also unsupported. All four men endured the journey's most distinctive and formidable barrier: more than a thousand dunes of soft sand that vary in height from 30 feet to well over 100.

Mark and I settled on a west-to-east track called the Madigan Line. As we familiarized ourselves with the various failed attempts, however, the task grew more daunting. The most recent effort had lasted all of six days. Before we left, I gave us a 50 percent chance of success.

To carry our supplies, we had sturdy custom-built aluminum carts with oversize bike tires reinforced with an internal tire to protect them from spinifex, a vicious cactus-like grass that covers the ground like an urchin carpet. Our loads consisted of food, camping gear, and satellite communication equipment.

And water. One hundred and thirty-five liters of it. Deciding how much to bring is to toy with diminishing returns. Too much and the weight won't let you get far. Too little and you're in for cramps, organ failure, and worse. We decided on five liters per day for 27 days — 300 pounds per person with no wiggle room. On the bright side, each day would shave about 11 pounds from our load on a mission whose signature challenge was its relentless clash with gravity.

The Madigan Line jogs to the north before arcing southeast to end in Birdsville, a town of fewer than 300 most famous for its jolly outpost pub, which has earned mythical status as an oasis, and as a de facto stop for four-wheel-drive expeditions. More than a destination, that pub would become our motivation, a radiant beam leading us out of purgatory.

After two days of manageable terrain, we veered off track to meet the desert's full menu of obstacles. First it was the lunar plain: 20 miles of flat scorched ground, a sea of small rocks like the surface of Mars. Each rock challenged the wheels and shook the heavy carts, rattling our bones and loosening our fillings. Then came the dunes. In early August, temperatures can swing from a nightly freeze to 100-plus degrees. The sand's firmness underfoot fluctuates accordingly; as the desert heats up, it softens to a thin powder. Almost every dune required us to double up on each other's cart — effectively tripling our distance — as the wheels sank into the hot sand. Each ascent entailed inching our way painfully to the top, only to roll down the other side in seconds and face the next rise. Then repeat. Our progress slowed to a crawl. The western side of the Madigan features the highest concentration of the sandy hills, and a start from the west, when the carts are heaviest, crystallized why all had failed on that track before us.

With 11 hours of hard labor in crippling heat, we had barely managed 5.8 miles against our 13 mandatory daily average. And our water consumption exceeded our rations. After camp and cooking needs, we were left with 3.5 liters during full exertion, which flirted with severe dehydration. My mouth felt as though I'd swallowed an ashtray. It was so dry that I struggled to eat calorie-rich nuts, which required precious water to swallow. (I eventually ditched the nuts, and I lost 20 pounds in 26 days.)

Five days in, we reluctantly conceded that the over-300-mile Madigan track was out of our reach. We would have to reroute. The new plan was to travel down on the Colson Track, whose southeast axis would postpone the dune crossings, allowing us to shed water before we turned east onto the French Line, eight days later. There we would take on the dunes again — 88 pounds lighter — and shoot straight to Birdsville. In total, the new itinerary topped up at over 404 miles and never had been traveled on foot.

Each day followed the same routine: predawn rise and then hustle to eat, pack, and hit the trail early to maximize on the morning's cool temperatures. The first hour, we were pumped and ready to set records. By hour 10, we had spent nine hours wondering what the hell brought us here. The dunes set the stage for the desert's heartless trick: As I neared the top of each one, my mind strived to reshape the road ahead, imagining a transformed landscape — a flat plain or an ocean — only to find, on cresting, the same view a thousand times over, dune after dune after dune.

If a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, the Simpson may well be the world's largest mental asylum. Did I mention the flies? From sunrise to sunset, hundreds of flies found ways to entertain themselves around our noses and mouths. In total I swallowed 10. And snorted three. Our hottest day peaked at 105 degrees; but with the sand radiating dry heat from below, it may as well have been 20 degrees hotter. On those days we spent up to three hours resting in the shade of the carts, saving energy, water, and morale. The single-file nature of these trips can rob the camaraderie from a team, favoring limited exchanges and introspective journeys. Only the sightings of snakes (including the inland taipan) and scorpions rekindled our boyish excitement.

If one decision stands out as the smartest of the trip, it was also the least expected for a desert crossing: packing umbrellas. They were intended for the breaks in the midday sun. But a turn of events would more than justify their extra weight while providing unexpected relief to our water crisis: rain. The desert had not seen heavy showers like those we experienced in years. We lost time crouched under our precious cover, but there was a silver lining: The umbrellas doubled as a capture mechanism for rainwater. By tipping them over the Nalgene, I managed a full liter in one sitting. The rain also lowered temperatures to reasonable travel conditions, helping reduce water consumption and firming up the sand to ease travel. That, perhaps more than anything, accounts for the success of our mission.

Beyond the blisters, the cramps, the nightly thorn-picking sessions, and the brutal dunes, the desert was kind to us. No pain can upstage the superlative twilights transitioning to star-filled skies lit up like a Christmas tree. By the final week, our weariness of the dunes had become a machinelike efficiency. With food and water reserves dwindling, we split the last meal. Our water ran out on the 26th day — three hours before reaching Birdsville. The pub glowed like stained glass in the afternoon sun. A crowd had gathered outside to greet our arrival on word of our crossing, and beers were handed out in celebration. The pub lived up to its reputation: a beacon that had led us across 404.5 miles of this majestic and harsh landscape, and what came to be the Simpson's longest latitudinal crossing.

But the Madigan . . . well, that line remains virgin and open for business.

Any takers?