Eva and Adam are on a long, cruisey lap of Australia in their Troopy. As part of their trip, they challenged themselves to drive across the Simpson Desert. Here’s how it turned out.
If you look at a satellite map of Australia you’ll notice a big red splodge almost smack bang in the centre. That’s the Simpson Desert – a wild, harsh and beautiful place. It’s about as remote as you can get – there’s no food or water for hundreds of kilometres and temperatures regularly cruise well above 40 degrees even in the cooler months.
It seems totally inaccessible, so naturally, crossing the Simpson Desert is at the top of the ‘To Do’ list for any 4WD adventure enthusiast worth their salt.
When our ‘Big Lap’ of Aus took a wild and unexpected turn away from the busy East Coast surfing towns, we decided to set our sights on the desert instead and dragged my Dad along for the adventure of a lifetime. And boy am I glad we did because this adventure was the highlight of our year by far.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you’re totally alone in the wild, two day’s drive from the nearest town. It makes you feel small and insignificant and in complete awe of the natural world. It’s worth the heat and the wind and the flies just to get that feeling of being truly alone in the wild.
Day 1 – Alice Springs to Kulgera
Distance: 275 km
This is the most relaxed day of driving, so enjoy it because the next five are going to be BIG.
Before you leave Alice Springs, fill your water tanks, stock up on at least a week of food and check everything in, on, and around your car because the next mechanic and supplies are in Birdsville!
If you’ve got time for some sightseeing on the way, take the 20km track to Rainbow Valley and check out the stunning multicoloured cliffs. Camp at the Kulgera Roadhouse. They have grassy spots under trees, allow fires, and have a lovely little pool to cool off in!
Day 2 – Kulgera to Dalhousie Springs
Distance: 370 km
Once you leave Kulgera you won’t be seeing any phone service or bitumen roads until you reach Birdsville on the other side of the desert! There’s 300km of shuddering corrugated road between Kulgera and Mt Dare. On the way take a detour into the ‘official’ centre of Australia, because really, when are you likely to ever be there again?
Mount Dare will be your last stop for water and fuel before the desert. Here you’ll pick up a Desert Parks Pass which allows access to Witjira National Park, Simpson Desert Conservation Area, and Munga-Thirri National Park – all of which you’ll cross between here and Birdsville.
It’s also totally worth indulging in a burger and a beer on the shady lawn and hiring a satellite phone for the trip, just in case of emergencies.
Camp for the night another 70km down the road at Dalhousie Springs Campground. Right next to camp is a blissful hot spring to soak in and soothe your body after the long drive.
Days 3 – 5 – Dalhousie to Northern Territory Border
Distance: approx. 330km
Have one final soak before hitting the road into official desert territory! There are a few different tracks you can take across. The French Line is the most direct and popular route but this means it also gets the most traffic meaning the track can become quite rough and chopped up
We opted to take the slightly longer route via the WAA Line. You get a more varied scenery than just sand dune after sand dune (you’ll be sick of them by the end trust me) and the added bonus was that we went entire days without seeing another single soul.
Most people drive the desert in three days but we had time on our hands and took an extra day to soak it all in. After all, what’s the point in driving to the most remote, stunning, arid, captivating place in Australia and not having time to appreciate it?
As you get further from Dalhousie, the rocky, moon-like plains fade into gradually bigger dunes and the sand beneath you reddens. At the top of each dune, you catch a glimpse of the empty single lane desert track stretching to the horizon before dipping back down to start the next climb.
We drove through the heat of the day (us with aircon, Dad sadly, without) and stopped to set up camp between dunes each night.
With the extra day up our sleeve, we had time to cook delicious slow-cooked stews on the campfire, roam the dunes in search of animal tracks, witness a flock of hundreds of green budgies zoom past our camp, stand in awe of a spectacular pink sunset and a full moonrise, marvel at the colourful desert flowers in full bloom, and stop to leap around at the top of the reddest, sandiest dunes we could find.
Day 6 – The Triumphant Arrival in Birdsville!
Distance: approx. 100km
On our last day of driving the sand dunes got bigger and further apart and in places gave way to huge crusted salt flats.
The very last sand dune was the biggest and even had its own name – ‘Big Red’. We arrived at Big Red, in the early afternoon on our last day. It took a few test runs but eventually, all three of us managed to drive our way up and over the enormous 40 metre high dune.
From the other side of Big Red it’s 35km to Birdsville where a well deserved hot shower, cold beer, and delicious pub meal awaits!
– Extra fuel – A long range fuel tank or spare jerry cans are critical. On this trip you’ll travel 500km between fuel stops (Mount Dare to Birdsville) and driving in low range on soft sand will use more fuel than normal. A conservative way to estimate how much fuel you’ll need is to figure out how many litres of fuel your car uses per 100km, then double that. We used 20L per 100km while driving through the Simpson.
– Extra water – Allow for 10L of water per person per day. You probably won’t use all that but at least if something goes wrong and you get stuck an extra day or two you’ll be fine.
– 4WD experience – It goes without saying that crossing the Simpson is a fairly advanced 4WD trip that you shouldn’t take on lightly. Having said that, you don’t need to be a complete pro to do it, especially if you take someone else experienced with you. If you’re new to 4WDing you could up your experience beforehand by taking a 4WD course or trying your hand at some soft sand beach driving as a test run. As always, the most important trick with driving in soft sand is to let your tyre pressure right down and drive in low gear while keeping your revs high.
– Recovery gear – It’s a legal requirement to have a safety flag in the Simpson desert for visibility while driving up and down steep dunes. Other essential recovery gear includes recovery boards and a long-handled shovel for digging your tyres out of sand bogs, and a winch and snatch straps in case you need to be assisted by another car.
– Desert Parks Pass – You can buy your National Parks pass at Mt Dare at the start of the trip or order it in advance online. Your pass covers all camping in the park and maps of the tracks and essential info so I recommend ordering it in advance to help you plan.
– Communication – There’s no reception in the desert so it’s worth hiring a satellite phone in case you get into trouble. You can get them at Mount Dare for $40 per day and drop it off at the Birdsville Info Centre.
And of course
– Two way radio
– A compressor and tire pressure gauge to lower and pump up tyres
– Fly nets (I can not stress this enough, these are a must have!)
– Shovel and toilet paper
– Gas stove and cooking gear
– Tent/sleeping gear
– Camera and drone
Read more: Outback Driving Survival Guide
Best Time to Travel
The Simpson Desert is closed to cars between December 1 and March 15 due to the extremely high temperatures. We crossed in early October and the most comfortable time to travel is between May and October.
Distance Covered / Duration
1075 km / 6 Days / 5-7 hours driving each day