In 1939 Cecil Madigan led a nine-man scientific expedition on camels across the northern sector of the Sandridge Desert, which he renamed the Simpson Desert in honour of the expedition patron Horace Simpson who was then manager of the company famous as manufacturer of the Simpson washing machine and other household appliances. Madigan was successful in completing the crossing with few problems and later wrote a journal to record this epic exploration adventure which he titled “Crossing the Dead Heart“.
After wet weather and COVID restrictions scuttled our plans to follow Madigan’s route in 2021 we were now lined up for another crack at the desert crossing, along with most of our travelling companions from last attempt. Mt Dare was our meeting point, a small hotel and camp ground on fringe of the Simpson Desert just south of the SA/NT state border.
Our plan was spend seven days to traverse the roughly 750km and approximately 800 sand ridges necessary to reach Birdsville, stopping by each of the Madigan Expedition’s camp sites that are accessible to the public.
For readers interested in the trials and tribulations of the original expedition, an electronic copy of Madigan’s journal can be found at this LINK. I won’t repeat too many details of their journey and to keep this blog succinct I’ll give a brief account of each days’ travel. Feel free to reach out through the blog comments if you have any questions or would like more detailed information about any part of our overland trip.
Day 1 – Mt Dare to Marshall’s Bluff
A 9 o’clock departure from Mt Dare saw our group heading north and soon across the SA/NT state border, then crossing the braided dry channels of the Finke River bed. From there we were soon running across clay pans and gibber plains for 50km or so until first of the Simpson Desert sand ridges rose before us, glowing orange in the morning light.
A real highlight of any trip into this remote area is a visit to the Old Andado homestead, a moment of pioneer life frozen in time. The original Andado Station was launch place for Madigan’s expedition as it was the further point of civilisation at that time – since then the cattle grazing property faltered and most of it was sold off but matriarch Molly Clarke continued to live in the old homestead and when she eventually departed she left the building fitted out with her personal items as a museum and example of pioneer life in this harsh remote land. We covered Old Andado in a video we made last year that you can watch by following THIS LINK.
A further 50km northward is the Mac Clarke Reserve, where Molly’s husband fenced off a stand of rare Waddywood trees to protect them in an act of conservation well ahead of its time. This rare Acacia tree is found in only three places, here on Old Andado and two small stands on opposite side of the Simpson Desert near Boulia and Birdsville. This is also location of the Andado North Bore, where Madigan’s team loaded their camels with cargo brought in by train and then trucked here to commence the expedition.
Several of the Madigan expedition camp sites are not accessible as they are near places special to the traditional owners of this area, so first of the camps that can be visited by the public is location of their day 5 bivouac. We continued past there and the Camp 6 site, eventually setting our own camp against a beautiful but stark backdrop of the Marshall Bluff mesa. This location was also near a small dry creek bed in which thousands of budgerigars were nesting, and as dusk fell they formed huge clouds that swirled noisily through the darkening sky – just breath-taking but very hard to photograph.
Day 2 – Marshall’s Bluff to Madigan Claypan
We were now on the main easterly traverse across the Simpson Desert and getting into the rhythm of the endless sand ridges that run roughly SSW to NNE. The sand ridges vary in height and shape but reach approximately 30m high for much of the desert and are roughly 400m apart, so each day of driving means crossing 100 or so. Care must be taken when cresting each ridge as the track can go in any direction, requiring you to steer in the correct direction just as bonnet of the car is pointed skyward.
A wet and mild summer meant that the desert was very vegetated, and luckily for us the track was in great shape with the moist sand providing good traction. This meant that we could approach each sand dune slowly, so that lowered tyre pressures (~16psi) and correct gear selection (1LO or 2LO) would carry us over the dune crests without wheel spin or bogging down.
The day passed quickly with plenty of bird life to keep us distracted, mainly soaring hawks and the finches and budgies they were hunting. The desert was also covered in wild flowers, with even the spinifex in flower and making for a great show in this normally arid area.
We passed by Camps 7 to 11, pausing at each to survey the location of the expedition camp sites and imagine the men and camels resting here after a day’s slog across the many sand ridges.
We pushed on and made our own camp in Madigan Claypan, a long stretch of inter-dune swale that sees very occasional water when the Plenty River floods out into the desert, creating a tree lined chain of clay pans.
Day 3 – Madigan Claypan to Camp 13
During Madigan’s desert crossing they had many days of cloudy weather and even rain, so that it was not possible to confirm their exact position by celestial sightings and navigation. This means that its not possible to exactly locate all of the camps and route taken by the expedition team, although written accounts and photographs have helped to fill many locational gaps. Several groups have attempted to interpret expedition records and retrace the route taken including the 1994 team that have placed the many yellow camp markers along the current route.
A second group crossed in 1995 that included ex/military personnel who were expert navigators, and they found errors in the previous years’ work resulting in Camps 12 to 14 being in different locations than marked. The 1995 group also found the “Football Field Claypan” described by Madigan, some 5.5km north of the current track location.
To make our own journey as complete as possible we decided to go cross country to the Football Field, so we unhitched our camper trailers and made the rough drive following a feint track across spinifex to check out this rarely visited natural feature. It is unfortunate that some muppet had decided the claypan was a good place to do some circle work in their vehicle, leaving unsightly scars on the claypan surface that will last for years to come in the desert environment.
On way to the Football Field we noticed a lone camel walking majestically along crests of the sand dunes to our east, looking every bit like the classic ship of the desert… When back on the main route we later caught up with him walking along the track ahead of us until he moved aside to give way.
The time spent on the clay pan side trip meant that we made less progress across the desert today, ending our day at the Camp 13 location on a small claypan in a broad swale between sand ridges.
Day 4 – Camp 13 to Camp 16
Another pre-dawn morning saw us fed, packed and ready for a 50km run across more dunes to the Hay River.
The Hay River is one of the few water courses that runs (rarely) deeply into the Simpson Desert. The river is a barely discernible channel however the broad inter-dune swale through which it runs is given away by the many desert ghost gums and larger shrubs that survive because of the higher soil moisture here than found in the desert itself.
When reaching the Hay River we firstly turned north for a few kilometres to inspect site of an ancient aboriginal midden and tool making area. The wind has exposed many old stone tools and piles of stone flakes left from chipping to make a sharp edge on tools such as an axe, scraper or spear head.
We returned down the Hay River until reaching the site of Camp 16, which is notable because it includes one of the few trees that Madigan blazed with “M 39” to mark his route – also because it would have been one of few largish trees he encountered on the expedition. Bark has now grown back over the blaze mark, leaving only a scar on the tree’s trunk that hides the 83 year old marking.
We set up camp for the night amongst small gum trees just south of the point where the expedition turned away from the Hay River and resumed their easterly traverse of the desert.
Day 5 – Camp 16 to Camp 19
We resumed our easterly course, which meant directly crossing the sand ridges rather than running between them. The ridges were high and steep in this section but the cool morning and damp sand made for easy work with good traction.
During the day we came across a small group of camels that appeared to be young bulls quarrelling to decide who was the dominate male. They took little interest in us as they sized each other up, only moving on when one of the males bluffed the others into submission.
We passed by Camps 17 and 18, each on small clay pans between dunes which would have made good flat camp sites for the expedition team, though without any water but with a few stunted gidgee trees for firewood. Between these two camps we also crossed the NT/Qld state border, leaving the aboriginal controlled NT Central Land Council lands and entering the Queensland Munga-Thirri National Park.
We reached Camp 19 clay pan early but elected to stay and make camp for the night as it was a large flat area and we were unsure how far before the next suitable site. It proved to be another chilly night as the breeze came up, kicking up dust from the talc like clay pan surface.
Day 6 – Camp 19 to Annandale Station
A leisurely start this morning and we continued toward the south-east, soon leaving the National Park and entering the Adria Downs cattle station. Here we encountered our first signs of civilisation for many days, with remains of the century old rabbit proof fence emerging from the desert sand. That the gidgee timber posts are still standing is testimony to how tough the wood from these tree is. In places top of the fence wire was only a few inches above ground level, a result of wind blown plants and sand building up around the fence and eventually submerging it.
We continued to follow the fence line until it intersected head waters of Eyre Creek, at which point we headed south again. Eyre Creek was critical to early exploration and settlement of this area as it contains some of the only permanent water in this vast desert area. Northern monsoon rains feed into the creek from the upstream Mulligan River, otherwise the creek has its own local catchment that accumulates enough water for the creek to run most years until it merges with Warburton Creek and eventually enters Lake Eyre in far away South Australia.
The track now followed the ancient creek bed to the south and luckily a few weeks of dry weather had left our path firm enough to pass through otherwise it looked to be very boggy ground when wet. We eventually reached site of Camp 20 on banks of the large Kuddaree Waterhole, a permanent source of water that was home to plenty of water birds.
A further 25 kilometres along the Eyre Creek track we reached site of Camp 21. This is last of the Madigan Expedition camp sites that can be visited because remainder are on private land and the owners do not give permission to pass through – so formal part of our Madigan Line route ends here despite us having quite some distance to reach Birdsville.
Soon after Camp 21 we came to ruins of the Annandale Station homestead, once a significant cattle property in this area and part of the huge Kidman empire. Only the stone and metal parts of the homestead remain including the kitchen chimney and many of the large steam engine driven pumps and equipment. The area around the ruins was blanketed with wildflowers and made for a very picturesque scene.
Also near the old homestead is a plaque to denote the northern most point reached by the 1845 Charles Sturt Expedition, the first to penetrate the desert country of central eastern Australia. Its unclear who placed the plaque but its location seems to be correct based on what we’ve read of his route which included finding and naming Eyre Creek upon which Annandale homestead was built. As an aside, the creek was named after a previous explorer John Eyre who explored much of remote South Australia and who has numerous landmarks now named in his honour.
A little further south we found a great spot to make camp, a flat area at base of a distinctive orange sand dune. Given that we were now on an organic certified cattle grazing property we had to be a little more careful about staying on established tracks so we kept our camp footprint small, which meant being a little closer to each other than normal but it made for a cosy camp fire scene.
Day 7 – Annandale Station to Birdsville
Well our final day in the desert and only 125km left to reach Birdsville.
After breaking camp we continued southward along Eyre Creek until reaching its intersection with the QAA Line, the main east-west access track from Birdsville into the Simpson Desert. Given its higher traffic load the track was in much worse shape than the Madigan with holes and moguls on both sides of all the dune crests, which meant slow going to avoid throwing the vehicles around too much.
We also had to negotiate oncoming traffic including some large groups of vehicles, especially given that it was now beginning of the school holidays and lead up to Birdsville’s “Big Red Bash” concert which attracts a lot of people to the area. However we were on the home straight now and pushed through in good spirits.
Our last stop before reaching Birdsville was Nappanerica, or “Big Red” as it is more affectionately known – the biggest sand dune in the Simpson Desert which rises impressively from a large clay pan to make a formidable obstacle over which to pass to exit the desert. There is an easier track available to tow the trailers over however we decided to have a play first and unhitched the trailers for a few runs up the harder dune climbs with the unladen vehicles.
And so ends our desert adventure, reaching Birdsville in great shape and with no vehicle issues.
We refuelled at the roadhouse and the total consumption, 205l of diesel from Mt Dare to Birdsville with 768km traversed according to the Hema GPS trail, a figure that was pretty consistent with the other V8 Landcruisers in the group and not bad considering we were towing and in low range gears most of the trip.
From there it was straight to the caravan park to set up camp and head for a much anticipated hot shower, closely followed by a counter meal at the famous Birdsville Hotel.
Thanks for following along on our Madigan Line desert crossing adventure. From here we have the long 1,625km haul back to Brisbane following the Warrego Way. We’re not looking forward to meeting all the traffic headed out this way for the Big Red Bash as much of the road is gravel or single lane bitumen, making stone damage from oncoming vehicles a real possibility.
And then, we’ll clean up the rig and pack for the next adventure, departing mid July for a seven week 12,000k loop to Ceduna on the South Australian coast then up through the central desert to the WA coast line and back to Brisbane. Follow our blog for more details of this epic trans-continental adventure 😉
PS – here’s a little teaser video of the trip, until I get time for a full version 😉