At 176,500 square kilometers, the Simpson desert is the world’s largest sand dune desert… So why did a couple of blokes decide to bike their way through it unsupported?
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which this adventure takes place who have occupied and cared for this land and water for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.
It’s not very often a man looks you dead in the eyes and says what you’re about to do could kill you. That man was the owner of the Mount Dare Hotel, the last bastion of hope before entering the world’s largest sand dune desert, the Simpson Desert.
It had taken three hot heavily corrugated 120km days to ride here. We’d already had the ranger try and talk us out of it, found alternatives to our leaking water containers, lost some food to the crows and based on the ranger’s advice, decided to change route, adding a few hundred k’s to our journey. This was meant to be our rest day…
Meet The Crew
Ok let’s back up a little and start with Tim Adventure Bondi. This is how Tim’s saved on my phone and for good reason. Tim lives for adventure and instigates the most daring trips we go on. He’s full of beans, hard as nails and insanely optimistic. If Tim gives you a distance estimate, double it. Tim is the guy responsible for this trip and the driving force behind making it happen.
The logical and detail oriented side of Tim’s brain comes in the form of Benny, who, we joke, keeps us alive. When Benny’s not working for our charity Act For Peace he’s taking incredible photos (seen in this article). I think you’ll agree they aren’t too shabby.
Anti-Faff enforcer and suncream junky Keith makes up the third member; he’s as dry as they come and as direct as his pointy gnome-like beard. Keith used his skills to make custom axles for our bikes that had to stand up to 60 kgs of gear, water and food.
Which leaves me, Chris. A mostly excitable, sometimes skittish lemming whose professional skills render me useless. Well not quite, I did get our amazing sponsors on board and attempt to accompany Benny’s photos with words.
I’ve always loved mountain biking but this trip was different, this was far bigger than anything any of us (particularly me) had done before. So with the team locked in we had six months to train, plan, get sponsors on board and raise some money. Now, back to the Mount Dare Hotel…
8 Days In The Simpson Desert
Tim and Keith did a great job of talking Benny and I down from the ledge, and reminding us of the conversation and resulting support we got from the ranger Frank. Having been on an adventure or two himself he may have started off trying to ban us from entering the desert, but in the end told us to prove everyone wrong and go for it. You’re a legend Frank.
The plan. 8 days to ride unsupported across the world’s largest sand dune desert, The Simpson Desert, located across three states in the arid heart of Australia. The change in plan meant peeling off the soft and chewed up French Line to ride the longer, slightly firmer Rig Road, adding an extra day but enabling us to ride 80% of the dunes. The risk being a lot less traffic if something goes wrong and once we’re four to five days in, no turning back. We then get back onto the notorious French Line, before reaching the home stretch and tackling the giant dunes on the QAA line.
Adding the extra k’s meant making up time,so we needed military precision when setting up and packing down tents and taking breaks. “Time Check” became a regular shout. Every day we woke up at 5am when it’s still dark and cold, one person made breakfast and lunch for the day, the other three packed down, on the road by 6:30 / 7am.
We rode until 6pm with two 30 min lunch stops and the occasional 5 min breather at the top of the steepest dunes. Then tents back up, dinner made and in bed by 8:30pm.
It was a gruelling regime, not helped by head winds, heavy bikes and an endless sea of sand dunes. Yet we remained positive, continued cracking jokes, learned to eat, drink and take a leak off our bikes. We marveled at what the human body is capable of. Yes we trained, but nothing can quite prepare you for riding 10 hours a day for 11 days. You wake up and your body reluctantly obeys, telling itself “this is what I do now.”
Every day we faced new challenges, but running out of water remained our biggest fear. Luckily we made the call at the last and only store we found to swap our leaking bags with sturdy plastic containers.
The weight on the fully loaded bikes was immense, resulting in speed wobbles and the front wheel having a mind of its own. We shifted weight to the back racks to solve the problem, but this almost broke the clips on the rear pannier bags and in my case the bolts came loose, nearly totalling my bike. Keith found ways of using straps to tie on the bags which required constant maintenance. We had to find another way.
Mega K’s And Mind Games
Then there was the mental challenge. Changing the route added significant k’s to our journey meaning most days we had to average 100km a day. Over the first four days 30km/h head winds, deep corrugations and relentless dunes meant we got 30 to 40k’s behind schedule. Real anxiety started to kick in, it wasn’t just “when are we going to make it to the finish?”, it was “how do we make it out at all?”
On a day where we were trying to make up time we got a tailwind, put our heads down and gave it everything to smash out 20k’s in an hour. We then took a quick break, inhaled our lunch and tackled the next dune. My lunch came straight back up.
Exercising to the point of exhaustion, then having to push on and ride another 25k’s over sand dunes is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it was my lowest point of the trip. For the first and last time on the trip I thought “I can’t do it.” This made me angry, that anger turned to determination and thanks to the encouragement of the team we hit our target k’s on what turned out to be our biggest day.
Morale Boosting Dick Points
To lighten the mood, we awarded dick points to anyone who unnecessarily held up the team. Dropped your sunnies? Dick point. Repeatedly blinded someone with your head torch? Dick point. Only person to get a puncture and end up getting 5! Yep Benny, that’s a dick point right there. Nothing like banter to keep the spirits up.
People passing through on dirt bikes and custom 4×4 rigs stopped to tell us we’re mad bastards, take photos, but most importantly, help alleviate our weight problem by dropping some of our water down the track, lightening our bikes. More often than not they raised our spirits by donating to Act For Peace or gave us tasty treats. Sticky date pudding anyone?
One of the highlights had to be the old boys from Coffs Harbour. Iron Man vets themselves they pulled up down the track to put on a full drinks stations with sliced oranges, apples, Tim Tams, cold drinks, the lot! This gave us a much needed boost on what was another incredibly tough day.
A special mention to our new friend Daniel. Having spent 6 years Living out the back of his 90’s Hilux, Dan is one of those special characters uniquely tailored to the environment in which you meet them. A man of the world, he’d chosen the Australian wilderness as his domain.
We met halfway in and shared our camp and camaraderie. In return Dan took the edge off things by sharing nearly everything he had, making great fires, providing excellent company and taking our minds off our aches and pains. See you down the track mate.
What people don’t tell you is how quiet the desert is. If you stay still the silence is deafening. Everything’s so dry and the wildlife is so sparse (where were all the camels?). The landscape changed with almost every dune we rode over. You could be in the Wild West one moment, the Middle East the next. The sky came alive at sunrise and sunset and it felt like you could reach out and touch the Milky Way.
The breakthrough moment of the trip came when we conquered the Rig Road and completed the second section of the French Line, providing a glimmer of hope. The third section meant pushing up nearly all of the dunes but we did it. We even pushed through injuries on the QAA line and made it out of the Simpson Desert Park, the defining moment of the trip, captured so perfectly by Benny.
Full Bore To The Finish
Did that stop us from getting up early on the last day, smashing up 50 of the steepest dunes before pushing up the monstrous Big Red and racing like school kids to the finish line? Of course not. Although at this point I was sad to say goodbye to the desert. We had raced our way through the 940k’s, pushing ourselves to the limit every day and hadn’t had a chance to stop and take any of it in.
This was all forgotten when we made it to the finish line, the Birdsville Hotel, and found friends and family had put money behind the bar. Legends. Keith had a genius idea which consisted of beer, beer, beer, food, beer, shower, turn on phones, beer beer beer. It was a really enjoyable moment, as the reality of what we’d achieved finally began to sink in.
I went into this trip wanting to test my mettle and have the challenge of a lifetime. It was so much more than that. Yes it nearly broke me, but it also made me appreciate how incredibly capable our bodies are and what a waste it is to spend our lives living inside our comfort zone.
Now, about that next adventure…
A very special thank you to Canyon whose Fat Bike “The Dude” held up to everything we threw at it. It’s an amazing machine. Martin at Adventure Australia Treks And Tours for the water drops, pies, beers, warm Birdsville welcome and helping us ship our bikes home. Rob at Client Sat for the Sat Phone, thankfully we didn’t need to use it. And finally our incredibly patient and supportive friends, family and loved ones. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Learn more about the Simpson Desert Crossing on their Facebook page
All photos by Benny Littlejohn – The Adventure Co.