Our small convoy of vehicles came to a stop south of the ruins of Annandale Homestead. From talking to the station owner we knew there was a crossing of the flooded Eyre Creek close by and, as he had used it recently, we guessed we’d be able to see his wheel tracks to lead us to the correct spot.
Even so, the rock bar across the creek wasn’t all that obvious, having been covered in the mud, silt and sand that the river had brought down with it during its latest flush along this ephemeral outback stream.
The first vehicle picked its way across the shallow waters tentatively, the rest soon following, the rocky limestone base a few metres wide being enough to keep us from sinking in the muddy ooze elsewhere along the creek.
Our trip across the Simpson Desert following in the wake of the 1939 Cecil Madigan expedition had started that morning in Birdsville when we had left town and quickly found our way out to ‘Big Red’, the famous dune on the eastern edge of the desert which now plays host to the Big Red Bash music festival every year, (barring COVID-19 restrictions). This impressive and tall dune had been named by acclaimed desert traveller, Denis Bartell in 1977 after sitting atop its fiery crest on a number of previous occasions.
From Big Red we pushed west along the well-travelled QAA Line, which nearly all Simpson Desert travellers use to access their favoured route into and across the desert. Then, after crossing dunes for 18km, we swung north on a lesser used track that parallels the Eyre Creek. Swathes of green greeted us as we cruised close to the creek, its waters hidden via an intervening sand ridge but its bulk was not enough to stop the life-giving liquid oozing out across the transitory flood plains.
The contrast between the recently flooded areas, now herb covered and verdant, and the dry, parched areas the water never reached, was sharply defined and desolately stark.
We then came to a marker indicating Madigan’s Camp 22, the first of many we would come across during our foray across the desert. These signs on a yellow star picket were erected in 1994 by David Owen and Robert Correa, then operators of Owen Correa Outback Adventurers.
Back when Madigan and his men first crossed the desert in 1939, they filled in one of the last great blanks on the map of Australia. From Bore No.1 north of the Old Andado homestead on the desert’s western margin, Madigan's crew had loaded their string of 19 camels and headed first north towards the junction of the Hale and Todd Rivers before striking east across the desert.
While the expedition was a success and achieved a much better understanding of the region, little occurred after that until oil and gas seekers arrived some 25 years later.
When Denis Bartell drove the Madigan Line in 1979, the northern Simpson was completely untracked, as it was when we first followed the route in 1989. The going was a lot tougher than today and we each took a hard-pushed seven days to cross the desert from Old Andado to Birdsville. Now it’s an easy five-day run.
North of Camp 22 we came to the scattered ruins of the Annandale Homestead, which had first been established in 1876 by Patrick Drinan. It was then purchased by Sidney Kidman (later, Sir Sidney) in 1896, the first of his properties in Queensland. The Annandale lease was later bought by Bill Brook in 1939 and is now part of the much bigger Adria Downs property, one of many owned and run by the Birdsville-based Brook family.
After finding our way across the flooded creek, we wandered north and then west to camp at the base of a dune amongst a sea of green. The next morning we pushed north along the western margin of the greenery left behind by the receding flood. We actually tried to get to Kudaree Waterhole and Madigan’s Camp 20, but the Eyre Creek and waterhole was a vast inland sea, and we stopped on its shores some one to two kilometres from the marked campsite. It was great to see such a huge expanse of liquid and, while the water will slowly dry back, the waterhole that is a life giving source for the area’s wildlife will have water in it for a couple of years at least.
From our verdant sea we turned north-west, leaving behind an oasis as we crossed the dry and dusty flood-out country of the further reaches and channels of the Mulligan River. For a time, our route followed the remains of the old Rabbit Proof Fence, which today marks the boundary of the Munga-Thirri NP.
In the heart of the park and north of Camp 18 we searched for and eventually found the star picket marker of Mudloo Well. Situated amongst a large stand of gidgee scrub, this often elusive watering point, once an important Aboriginal native well or ‘Mikiri’, with a sloping man-made funnel shaped shaft, reportedly 30ft (9m) deep, is a bit of an enigma. Certainly, the well existed in days gone by, but where it is actually located is yet to be confirmed. There were signs of camels lazing around recently and I scared off a flock of budgies, all of which are indicative of water being close by, but we never saw or found any.
That night’s camp was in yet another stand of gidgee scrub, at Madigan’s Camp 17, just over the border in the NT. These stands of scrub that make good camping spots are relatively common on the Qld side of the border but become rarer as you head deeper into the desert, only to become more regular again as you reach the western side of the desert.
The next day as we continued westward, the dunes got closer together and the going slowed as we approached the Hay River, Camp 16 and the gum tree Madigan blazed there. The tree still stands healthy and tall, even though water rarely floods this far south down the Hay. The tree, its blaze just a scar now, is surrounded by a scrappy wire fence and a plethora of star pickets and signs denoting who has been there and when. From what we’ve heard this visual blight occasionally gets thinned out, leaving only a couple of the more historic signs such as the DNM (Division of National Mapping) plaque from 1974 and the small yellow signs we had come used to, which mark each of Madigan’s camps across the desert.
The much more used Hay River track, which starts down near Poeppel Corner, follows the riverbed north from here, eventually reaching the Batton Hills and a small campground just south of the Plenty Highway. This route, established by Jol Fleming and Traditional Owner, Lindsay Bookie in 1998 is a great way to experience the desert. A permit is necessary to travel this route and is available through Jol and his company, Direct 4WD Awareness.
We turned north and followed the track along the creek bed to Camp 15, but before turning westward on Madigan’s route we took a slight detour to yet another sign of ancient Aboriginal occupation of the desert. Here in a curl of the riverbed, where water would have lingered longer, there are ample reminders that Aboriginal people used this country a lot more than Europeans first thought. A scattered midden, a small rock quarry, along with plethora of stone chips can be seen. If you’re lucky you’ll discover a core stone or two, these being the stone that tools were flaked from.
Back on track we left the easy going of the Hay River and while we were trying to get to Madigan’s Claypan we were stymied by the country and settled for a camp at Madigan’s Camp 12, a fairly bare spot devoid of trees.
It was mid-morning the next day before we got to Madigan’s Camp 11, the dunes now getting taller and creating a bit of a challenge for a few in our party. Madigan had found water here and good feed for his camels so had stopped for the night, even though he had left his previous camp just an hour or so earlier. This was one of the first campsites relocated and marked by the Division of National Mapping (DNM) in 1981, the two claypans here being very distinctive.
We pulled up at Camp 7, after knocking over just 90km for the whole day. That evening a fox came into our camp scrounging scraps from around the campfire when all of us had gone to bed, his tracks giving his presence away the next morning.
Pushing on we met with the Colson Track near Madigan’s Camp 5 where we also met a couple of experienced desert travellers with a well set up camp. It soon became obvious why their camp was so well established.
They had broken down five days earlier and after stripping the offending wheel hub, their travelling companion had departed for distant Alice Springs to pick up the parts required for a bush repair. They were in HF radio comms with their good Samaritan, who was due back at their camp the next day. Would you be able to handle such an emergency?
After a bit of a yarn we turned south along the relatively high speed Colson Track before striking westward again on a faint set of two-track towards Madigan’s Camp 2.
This route soon crosses the flood-out country of the Hale River, which would make a pretty reasonable spot to camp amongst the scattered clumps of trees before swinging north and finally leaving the last of the sand dunes and the ‘real’ desert behind.
The track winds northward towards The Twins, two distinctive conical-shaped hills that lie side by side and Madigan had climbed these and found a small cairn, probably built by the surveyor T.E. Dale while on a traverse from Charlotte Waters to the eastern MacDonnell Ranges in 1916. Today there are plaques erected by the RGS (SA branch) and by Reg Sprigg, both in 1967, that now adorn the cairn. As a pleasant surprise, no other markers have been left here. We clambered to the top of the steep-sided hill and admired the great view the peak gives of the surrounding country and the dunes, which begin not far to the east.
Access further north to Fletcher Hill, Madigan’s Camps 3 and 4, which are close to the Allitra Tablelands and the Allua Soak in the Hale River, is no longer allowed as detailed on the permit you need for this trip from the Central Lands Council (CLC).
Just south of The Twins we passed an old derelict Case tractor (you'll find a Geocache around here) and then cruised south along the edge of a low range or jump-up, before stopping at Poodinitterra Hill. This hill was made even more obvious by the small cairn on it and attracted by that, we had climbed the low peak. Between the peak and the convoluted line of the low range was a section of flat ground cut by some narrow threads of transient streams and it was here that Madigan had made his Camp 2, while to the south the most prominent peaks had been named by Madigan after members of his party as Marshall Bluff and Crocker Hill.
We were now making good time along little-used station tracks and across flat sandy plains with the odd patch of small gibber stones. We passed what is marked on most maps as Camp 1A, and east of Madigan's Camp 1. Back when the camps were found and marked by David Owen and his crew, the station owner didn't want people going to Camp 1, hence 1A!
We dodged around North Bore and stopped briefly at the Mac Clark Acacia Peuce Conservation Reserve, established to protect one of the three groves of waddy trees that occur in the world — the other two stand just north of Birdsville and south of Boulia.
Madigan commented in 1939 on how few trees there were here after most had been removed for the construction of fences and cattle yards. Today, after the husband of legendary pioneer Molly Clark had fenced the area in the 1970s and it was declared a reserve in 1982, these hard-wooded, slow growing trees seem to be thriving with many now outside the fenced area designed to protect the young ones from grazing cattle.
That evening we pulled into Old Andado homestead for a pleasant camp. This was, up until quite recently, the home of Molly Clark and her family. Today it is maintained by a family trust and a caretaker is generally in residence with camping available nearby.
A walk through the old historic homestead, left much as Molly had it, is a must-do. Molly lies buried just a couple of hundred metres away to the east of the old homestead, in the country she loved.
Our crossing of the Simpson Desert via the Madigan Line was over, but the memories will remain for a long, long time. Make sure you go and collect some soon during a crossing following Madigan’s route across the desert. Like us, you won’t be disappointed!
This area is remote and you need to be well equipped and experienced at desert travel. Any recovery from out here is time consuming and very expensive!
While the route was easy to follow on our trip, dry and windy conditions may cover the tracks, making good navigation essential.
Moon Tours (moontours.com.au) run a tag-along trip, west to east, across the Madigan Line especially for Aussie-made camper trailers. Their next camper trailer trip is just after the desert opens in March 2021.
You require a permit from the Central Lands Council (CLC) to travel the Madigan Line. It is easy to get and free. Website: clc.org.au/articles/info/application-for-an-entry-permit.
If you have any queries, call (08) 8951 6211.
Heading east on the Madigan Line from the Hay River demands permission from Adria Downs Station and the Qld NP & WS to cross the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) NP.
If you head south on the Hay River Track to the public access routes across the desert you require a Desert Parks Pass from NP SA. Website: environment.sa.gov.au/parks/entry-fees/parks-passes/desert-parks-pass.
For info on the Qld parks visit npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/simpson-desert.
DISTANCE AND FUEL
It's about 720km from Mt Dare to Birdsville via this route.
Fuel usage can be heavy depending on conditions. Both Patrols on our trip and the HiLux consumed 130–140L of diesel. We each carried 200L, and you would be advised to carry similar. Petrol vehicles would need more.
Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta: pinkroadhouse.com.au
Mt Dare Hotel campground: mtdare.com.au
Old Andado HS and campground: oldandado.com.au
FOR A GREAT READ
Crossing the Dead Heart, by Cecil Madigan
Desert Walker, by Denis Bartell. Website: desertwalker.com.au