Three Days Across the Simpson Desert with Hema Maps
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Words & Pics Dayv Carter
I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which I travel and camp.
(Image: Betoota Hotel is a must-stop on any trip to Birdsville — making the Windorah to Birdsville trip a two-day journey.)
As a Hema Maps ‘Alpha User’ I was invited to join the Hema Maps Crew on a Central Australia Track and Data Collection Trip in July 2021. With a planned 8,200 kilometres in 23 days, I knew the schedule would be full-on. But the same thoughts kept going through my head over and over again, that this would be a chance of a lifetime, and I’d be mad to say no!
Bryce, Hema Maps’ Field Work Administrator, had come up with a cunning plan to map numerous tracks and destinations, which included tackling a crossing of Big Red on the eastern side of the Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri, meaning big sandhill country) — to be my second crossing — travelling the QAA Line; ticking the box at Poeppel Corner, where the Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australian borders intersect; running the Hay River Track north; taking on part of the Binns Track to visit the East MacDonnell Range and Arltunga, Jokers Gorge, Trephina Gorge and Ruby Gap; Alice Springs for a restock; Davenport Hills; Docker River; Curtain Springs; Kathleen Creek; Coward Springs; Montecollina Bore; Innamincka and the Dig Tree; Olive Downs; and Currawinya National Park. On top of all this, I’d be travelling with the Hema Maps Crew to capture track and Point of Interest (POI) data that would make its way on to the maps we all use, as well as the Hema Maps navigation platforms and devices.
(Image: My BT50 (Pedro) joins the Hema Maps Team as a contracted Alpha User collecting track and POI data.)
Well, those destinations were part of Plans A, B and perhaps C. However, with COVID-19 constantly circling the hills around every city in the world and Australia’s state and territory borders being closed frequently and unpredictably the actual route was in the hands of the gods (well Bryce anyway). At least the evening before the first day went according to plan as I (with a rum in hand) met up with Bryce and his co-driver Steve, along with Ben and Hayley from Sydney’s Adrenalin Offroad Centre and Adrenalin Tag-Along Tours that night at the Birdsville Common, where we free-camped off-grid.
(Image: The obligatory stop at the Birdsville Hotel, Birdsville, Far South-West Queensland.)
The visit to the Birdsville Hotel is obligatory of course, and it was a great feed. Then it was back to camp and a good night’s sleep before the adventure continued. The next three days are the subject of this article. Our later travels will be documented separately.
Day 1: The Crew Grows at Birdsville (45km Travel)
After breakfast and a pre-departure equipment check, Bryce found that the rear shock absorber had come loose on the Hema Maps rig. But a quick tighten with the help of a jack, a rubber mallet, some sweat and dust, a small amount of threadlock and a ‘specialist’ spanner from the 1979 Kmart toolkit I got as a Christmas present from my sister, and we were on our way into town.
(Image: Bryce tightening the rear shock absorber on the Hema Maps rig.)
After the next obligatory thing in Birdsville — a pie and coffee at the Birdsville Bakery — we watched the constant parade of vehicles of all shapes and sizes dragging caravans and campers, again of all shapes, sizes and species, back from the Big Red Bash.
(Image: The ‘caravan’ of vehicles, caravans and trailers Returning from the Big Red Bash.)
You may well have seen us. We were parked up on the left outside the Birdsville Police Station. We watched and we waited most of the day as our departure was dependant on joining up with other members of the Hema Maps Crew, David and Will, and the photographers Matt and Marianne from Matt Williams Photography, who were coming back from the Big Red Bash. Once we met up and after all the hellos and welcomes it was westward bound for all five vehicles; two Toyota V8 79 series, a Ford Ranger, a Nissan Patrol and my ‘Pedro’ the mighty BT50 — oh and two camper trailers in tow. We left Birdsville at 5:00pm, which we knew would mean a late camp setup.
Somewhat disappointingly, due to track closures immediately after the Big Red Bash, we crossed ‘Little Red’ (just south of ‘Big Red’ or Nappanerica) as our first challenge. Perhaps this was for the best as we faced several challenges and lost time getting all the vehicles over the second dune, known as ‘Nemesis’.
We made camp just after 8:30pm and we all revitalised ourselves around the fire with quick-grab-meals, reflecting on the evening that was and the days yet to come.
Day 2: Further Into The Simpson Desert (77km Travel)
To catch the photographers’ ‘golden hour’ starting at 7:00am this far west, Matt had us up at 6:00am. However, I reckon the Hema Crew would have been on the road at that time anyway as they set a cracking pace in recording the great tracks and camps that we all turn to and rely upon. A late breakfast was had at Eyre Creek, where we were joined by a wild budgerigar (let’s call it what it was, a ‘budgie’) who was more interested in me and my hi-vis sloppy joe than in having his photo taken.
(Image: When the subject of one photo becomes the subject of another.)
With the added weight and tyre resistance of taking two camper trailers across the desert, our progress was hampered by needing to make several attempts on the steeper and longer dunes, and sometimes we needed to winch those last few frustrating metres close to the top. It was all good fun and very much part of the trip and it served to bring everyone together as a team — the ‘Hema Crew’. Even Pedro got to dig his heels in while others winched off his rear recovery point. Lunch was perhaps a highlight for some as we got to reheat cold pies from yesterday’s visit to the Birdsville Bakery in Ben and Hayley’s on-board oven. Camp was at a more reasonable hour, just inside the Queensland border. Tomorrow would be Northern Territory and turning our watches back 30 minutes.
Day 3: Northern Territory and Poeppel Corner (68km travelled)
For those of us that were not as photogenic as the two Hema trucks, it was an opportunity to have a sleep in as Matt took the Hema Maps trucks out for more morning Golden Hour photos. For me, I was up at 7:00am and after breakfast and some chats, followed by ironing out the usual equipment bugs, we were back on the track by 10:30am — yep, that late. Then, not five minutes down the track, we were ‘ambushed’ by two families who had lain in wait to entice the Hema Crew in for scones, jam and cream. It worked! As it turned out, Dave was a mad-keen Hema Maps user and he was eager to chat with some real-life Hema Maps staff in the wild.
(Image: Dave and his Damper Scones with Jam and Cream was a most welcome sight in the Desert.)
Dave had all of us at the scones and after that it was exchanges of money and maps, caps and autographs. We even had a chance for the three Daves to have their photos taken together in the desert (Scone Dave, Hema Maps Dave and me Dayv).
(Image: A chance meeting of three Daves in the desert.)
Dave’s mate Jeff and their respective families sort of took a back seat to Dave’s enthusiasm. So, a tip for any serious travellers and campers keen to meet the Hema Maps Crew on a track, simply bake up some scones; they’ll find you. They may even tag the location as a Point of Interest on future maps, or perhaps develop a new ‘Scone Zone’ icon.
In fact, we met several people on the track simply wanting a chat and perhaps even a have a photo taken in front of the Hema Maps vehicles. For me, it was a chance meeting with Adam and Andrea of ‘AnA Adventures’ who recognised me and my rig from Facebook that made my day. We hit the Northern Territory Border just around lunch and headed down to Poeppel Corner where Queensland and Northern Territory meet with South Australia. This provided an opportunity for Matt to once again get some great shots of the rigs, this time with a saltpan as the backdrop.
(Image: The Hema Maps Team at Poeppel Corner, where Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet.)
Camp setup was a little earlier again as Matt grabbed shots of the setting sun and the Hema Maps vehicles in all their splendour. That night had a tinge of sorrow to it (no tears because we were camping), for tomorrow the Hema Ranger (with Dave and Will) would be heading back east to Brisbane and Matt and Marianne would be going to all sorts of exotic destinations.
For Bryce and Steve in the Hema Landcriuser, Ben and Hayley in the Adrenaline Landcruiser and me and Pedro; we would turn our heads north tomorrow to tackle the Hay River Track, with plans to head further west as a smaller splinter group and plot more tracks and POIs. For Hema Maps their staff had captured data on the QAA Line, new POIs such as the Bush Camps and QAA Call Point markers, all of which will find their way onto future map releases. On top of that, Hema Maps now have some more great information, experiences, promotional material and photos that’ll whet the appetite of any aspiring overlander, desert crosser or lounge chair traveller.
For me, my observation was that the trials and experiences of the crossing (to Poeppel Corner, at least) had brought a somewhat disparate group with somewhat different histories together in a very short time. We had laughed; we had talked cars, campers and tracks; we had joked; we had sat around the fire together; we had cooked; we had helped each other over dunes both physically and with various tips and recovery techniques; and we may well have solved a few world problems too...and we all have stories to tell (even our new friend the budgie at Eyre Creek has a story, if you ask him).