Kayaking in the Simpson Desert.

Friday, Aug 26, 2011 at 19:57

Stephen L (Clare) SA

High on the list of most four-wheel drivers “to do list” would be a Simpson Desert crossing. Those that do the crossing will either fall into one of two categories and we have come across both types over the years. The first is been there done that and not really their cup of tea and would never think of ever doing such a trip again, or the second category which most people seem to fall into and that is they have a love of the complete isolation and seeing the desert in its various moods.

Over twenty years ago I fell into the second category and have made countless revisits over the years and driving on every possible track that the Simpson has to offer, with our preferred direction being an East – West crossing. Becoming a very competent Simpson Desert driver, including a number of solo trips through the desert, we undertook the hardest Simpson trip that anyone can do, a complete Cross Country trip in 2006 through to Geosurvey Hill and the Geographical Centre of the Simpson Desert.

Last year when Fiona and I were doing a solo Simpson crossing, we commented a number of times on all the water in the desert and the massive volume of water in Lake Nappanerica and only wished that we had our double kayak with us. Late in December 2010 and again in early 2011, many outback areas of Australia, including the Simpson Desert were again inundated with very heavy rainfalls, including the flooding of Mount Dare.

The volume of water coming down Eyre Creek again cut the desert and as late as June 2011 it was still not possible to do a complete Simpson crossing, with a complete desert crossing finally possible only from July onwards. With such an event and the recommissioning of the Cooper Creek ferry over the Birdsville Track in late June it got me thinking and I started to put into place an outback trip at short notice. By late July my final plans were complete and we would now tackle the last experience that the Simpson had on offer – the chance to kayak on both Eyre Creek and Lake Nappanerica and possibly become the first person to do such a very unusual task in the Simpson Desert.

We must have looked very strange travelling up the Birdsville Track with the kayak on the roof, but knew that many people would have done such a drive before, as the Diamantina River is another great river to kayak on as well as other waterways north of Birdsville. To coincide with this Simpson trip, we arrange and received prior approval to revisit one location that we would be travelling very close to and a place that we had not been back to for over seven years – Annandale Ruins north of Ruwolts Bore on our way to where we indented to kayak on Eyre Creek. It was during this phone call with the land owner David Brook that he informed me that the drive out to Big Red was via a different route that we had taken last year and would involved a section of the Border fence or as it is sometimes known The Poeppel Line.

Leaving Birdsville it did not take long to reach the detour sign and so far the track was a very well maintained station track heading south towards the border. At a point where we were right on the Border fence the track then swung due west. It was at this point that we approached out first sand dune of the Simpson and if the condition of this dune was an indication of what the desert was going to be like, it was going to be a good classic Simpson drive with very soft sand. When we crested the first dune I could hear a convoy of vehicles heading west and they were all having problems on each dune. It did not take long to know their problem, there were all first time Simpson Desert travellers and were running far too high tyre pressures, with someone in the group saying that he was going to drop his pressures down to 25psi, which was still far too high for the soft sand like it was by around 10psi. Being ridiculed in the past for giving reliable and correct information over the radio, we said nothing and the group continued on to cut the dunes up like irresponsible four-wheel drivers that thought that they knew it all. With another dune crossed we came across a Japanese motorcycle rider trying to lift up his heavily laden motorcycle that he had fallen off of for the second and was not even out in the desert proper.

This group of vehicles in front of us had driven past the poor chap when he needed help. Getting out of our car, I walked over and immediately there was a language barrier, as he could speak or understand very little English. We felt very sorry for him, as all he wanted to do was ride over Big Red. We both strained to get his bike upright and it was then that I noticed something very special, his EO sticker on the back of his helmet. In very broken English he said that he was a member and his name was Hideya Uehara from Kyoto Japan. I have since looked in the Members List, but have not been able to see him as Members. With all his gear back on his bike, he set off at a slow pace so we give him a good head start with full knowledge that we would not take long to catch him up. Sure enough and in less than five minutes he was struggling up the next steep dune. About three quarters of the way up he lost full momentum and then the bike was bogged down up to the swing arm. Hideya tried in vein to free the very badly bogged bike but it was a hopeless situation. For safety reasons I passed him on the far right-hand side of the track and parked our vehicle on the very crest of the dune so if someone happened to come soaring over the dune we would not get hit while trying to recover his bike. With the aid of my long handled shovel I managed to dig his bike out and after lots of pushing, pulling and then finally dragging his bike sideway it was free. In broken English he said that it was too hard for him in the very soft and cut up sand and decided to cancel his ride out to Big Red. With his bike ridden down to the bottom of the dune that he had tried to get over, we waved good-bye and wondered how he got on from here.

The half an hour that we lost in the recover gave the other group that was in front of us chance to get further ahead, a fact that pleased me greatly, as I could not have thought of being stuck behind a group of drivers that were learning as they crossed each dune, still with high tyre pressures. By the time that we reached Big Red there was a large number of day-trippers trying their luck in tackling the Simpson largest dune. It always makes me laugh when you see vehicles going like the proverbial and then getting less than a quarter of the way up and bogging down badly all from no knowledge on how to drive in soft sand, but that is another story. We did not even try the crossing, after all we were returning in a few days and we had to get to the top or else we would not be able to paddle on Lake Nappanerica.

From Big Red out the dunes were easier to travel and it did not take long before we came across the first channels of the Eyre Creek flood plains, with Coolabahs lining each swale. Reaching Eyre Creek proper we then headed north on the detour track and slowly headed towards Ruwolts Bore before heading over the large dune to see the extent of the water in Eyre Creek, and the site from the top of this dune was incredible seeing the volume of water there and showed why only weeks before the crossing at Goonamillera Crossing was out of the question will still over 1.5 metres over the crossing.

The crossing made a very pretty lunch stop before retracing our track back to Ruwolts Bore and our drive further north to the old Annandale Ruins. Things were going fine up the large dune just after the bore when we were again confronted with another inland lake that blocked all further travel on the normal track. With cross country travel at the base of the dune and around 300 metres from the actual waters edge, we slowly made our way north and again OziExplorer made this type of travel a safe affair, knowing just were we were and where we had to go to avoid the low lying country. Cresting our last dune we came down the other side and were back on the main track at Dickerrie Bores and from here only a short drive up to the Annandale ruins. How the country had changed since our last visit and there was now even a four strand barb wired fence that fenced off the ruins, with one way in and that was through the one gate in the whole fence. Along with the barded wire fence enclosing the area around the ruins, the couple of years of very good rainfall had covered the area with very thick plant growth and many of the old implements and wooden yards were partially hidden with Buckbush.

We set up camp and with the sun starting to set, walked over to the ruins. There is such a lot of early history here and also tragedies. My advise to any future travellers to this lonely and isolated location is that if you have never been here before, do your homework and do as much research on the location as possible otherwise there are many finer details that you will overlook completely.

We made our way through the old fences and equipment and Fiona picked a small bunch of wildflowers that were in full bloom. The flowers were not for us, but to place on the grave of the young children that died here and the painting by Wolfgang John titled “Angels of Annandale” captures the sombre mood of the death of these poor young children. Even though we did not know the children and it was well over 100 years since their deaths, we both shed tears as Fiona placed the flowers at the base of the small cross that marks the location where they were laid to rest. The small grave was covered with chicken wire at the time to stop the dingos from trying to dig up their bodies and today looks very much the worse for ware. Returning to our camp the sounds of a lone dingo rang out as it stood guardian over its territory. The last time we were here the waterhole had only a few puddles of water in it and was possible to walk from one side to the other, but not this time with a wide waterhole so typical of the Cooper Creek at Innamincka and would have been at least three metres deep, or deeper at this point.

Next morning it was a return visit to the old ruins for a few last minute photographs before retracing our tracks back towards Ruwolts Bore and from here to the site that we had selected to make camp with easy access to the Eyre Creek.

Like all return treks it did not seem to take as long to get back to Ruwolts Bore as id did to come out to Annandale and by mid morning we were back by Eyre Creek. Once we were set up the next task was to collect enough timber for our campfire, which did not take very long to collect at all. This looked like one place that we were going to stay two nights, as it just had that perfect feel about it and the water views were just stunning. As I was very anxious to get on the water, we had a quick lunch, and then enjoyed the peace and tranquillity on the water with not even another vehicles anywhere to be seen or heard. Again like the Cooper Creek the bird life was very plentiful with the greatest number of birds in this area being the Whistling Kites and it was very reminiscent of the African wildlife scene of the Vultures circling overhead just waiting for their victim to die.

Kayaking along Eyre Creek was just perfect and it seemed almost impossible to think that here we were out here in the Simpson Desert and on this great inland waterway that is usually a dry bed of dust and rocks. Paddling our way south down the Eyre Creek we came to so very shallow section of water that was quite shallow and the volume of water being forced over this section was quite different to what we had previously been paddling. Back into deeper water and things were back to normal until we were now approaching Goonamillera Crossing. At this point the width of the Creek narrowed along with the depth of the water and in front of us and there were some quite large rocks exposed in the water. We then tried to paddle way from then until we hit some quite large rocks that were submerged under the water and we came to an instant stop and we then tried in vein to paddle backwards to free ourselves, but the force of the water turned the kayak sideways in the water and I then thought that we would be immediately swamped. At the best of times the Kayak sits about six inches above the waterline and now the side facing the current was less than one inch from entering the kayak. We were now in a situation that if things did not change quickly, we would both be having a very cold bath so early in the day and the only way to stop this from happening was for me to get out and drag the kayak with Fiona still in it out of harms way.

It was at this point when I started to drag the kayak that I noticed a couple of people and two vehicles on the western side of the Goonamillera Crossing. This was nothing abnormal; after all it was the recognised wet weather detour crossing point for those that were doing a desert crossing. The first vehicles started crossing and it was at this point that I noticed his EO sticker on his front windscreen. I have him a wave and when he was safely across the other side, the remaining vehicle crossed. By this time I was nearly out of the water and when I was on the dry rocks and I went over to say g’day to the drivers of these two vehicles. The first thing that I asked them were they members, mentioning the EO sticker and as it was, they were both EO Members, Howard from the ACT and Robin and Anne Miller from Melbourne. It then turned out that we were the first people that they had seen in seven days as they were coming out of the Desert from their Madigan Crossing. Having a quick chat as you do, they were anxious to head off, as they still had over three hours of travel for them to reach Birdsville and their first hot showers in over a week. Wishing them all the very best, they hopped into there vehicles and were on their way.

The paddle back along Eyre Creek was very similar to the paddle down to the crossing. We had been out on the water for a few hours, but as great as it was we decided to head back to camp and just sit back and enjoy the tranquillity of the area. After loading up the kayak, the weather was just perfect and Fiona grabbed a magazine and her chair and sat back with the warming rays of the sun making we wished the day would never end. With the sun starting to get lower in the western sky, we stoked the fire up, grabbed a torch and the camera and headed off over the road and climbed to the top of the large dune that overlooked our camp. With only a very slight breeze, the only noise that we could hear were the constant cry’s of the kites as they circled overhead and the views were just unbelievable with the sun setting the dunes on fire with dark orange hues. With the sun now below the far horizon it was time to carefully make our way back to camp and be very careful where we put each step, as there were quite a few holes in the side of the dune and they last thing that we wanted was to trip and brake a leg.

With a nice bed of coals on the fire to cook tea, we set about to get tea ready when Fiona gave out a big scream and I immediately thought that there was be a snake in our camp, but no it was a native Long Haired or Bush Rat. I told Fiona that it was nothing to worry about and went on cooking tea. From now on this put Fiona on edge and she kept on telling me to do something, but what could I do? The rats were not like the feral Black Rats that you see in normal built up areas, smaller in body size and very fluffy, but for Fiona they were RATS! From what I could count, there appeared to be only about 3 and they were in different locations, but never the less it did put a bit of a dampener on the camp site. With another perfect fire, it made it very hard to drag us way from it and get into the swag. Most nights out in the swag are just great but not that night, and it seemed like the night would never end. I woke with a startle to sound and feel of a rat on the swag, so a simple kit with my foot sent it scurrying. The next feeling was one running behind my pillow and so on. The next morning there was a few rat droppings on the matting by the swag and as tranquil the location was, we both said that we would not want to spend another night hear again with rats as our neighbours. As we packed up It struck me how quite it was out here in the desert with vehicle traffic, with only four vehicles passing our camp in more than the twenty four hours that we were here, two going out into the desert around 11am the previous day and Howard and Robin heading into Birdsville also the previous day around 3pm.

We returned to the top of the dune for another relaxing time before saying farewell to this tranquil campsite, minus the rats. We were in no hurry knowing that if pushed we could be back into Birdsville within three hours, but we had another appointment with another of the Simpsons fresh water Lakes. On our way back on the detour track, we stopped countless times, for the many wildflowers that were in full bloom.

Once back onto the QAA Line we had an early lunch at the actual spot where Eyre Creek cuts the QAA Line. From there to Big Red was a good run through even though we stopped many times for pictures of the wildflowers. Once at Big Red I deflated the tyre pressures even further having driven over this big dune many times over the years.

I tried the steeper track to the left of the main track twice that goes directly up the centre and both times my front wheels were just on the top of Big Red and the soft sand had halted progress. Rather than trying again I reversed back down and with no speed up took the normal centre track and being aware of the last left hand turn and the lip at the top made it no problems at all. There were a two other vehicles at the top, but this was a quick stop for a few more photos and then down the eastern face of Big Red and parked our vehicle and out next great paddle on Lake Nappanerica. There was a lot more water than last year with the main track that skirt the Lake under water to the point that the actual Lake was just at the very base of the Nappanerica Dune.

We do not know how deep the water was, as within five metres from the shore, we were unable to touch the bottom with our paddles and it must have been well over three metres deep. We spent nearly two hours out on the water and it was again fantastic with not a breath of wind and a temperature of 24° degrees made it just perfect. As we were nearing the other side of Lake Nappanerica the moon started to rise over the red dunes of the Simpson and this was a unique while out on the water. Just like out near Eyre Creek, there were countless Kites flying overhead and resting in the trees and apart from the ones out further in the Desert, this was the first time that we have ever seen so many of them in the Simpson Desert. We could have stayed out here for hours, but is was now getting late in the day, so we put the kayak back on the roof and drove up the back way to the top of Big Red. It was still great to see the desert like this and we again took more photos on top this renowned dune and this time we had it to ourselves. At the highest point on the dune I turned on my mobile phone and just like last year, was able to ring home and tell family members that we were safely out of the desert.

Once down at the bottom of the dune, I reinflated the tyres back up to 16psi for the return drive back into Birdsville on the new wet weather detour track. One again the dunes were very cut up to the point that on one dune I had to have two shots at getting over which was very embarrassing after coming out from the desert. In the distance a lone vehicle was travelling out late in the day to see Big Red and commented on the Kayak on my roof, saying he bet we had lots of fun sliding down the dunes. I then said that no, we had been paddling out in the desert and you could see the look on his face as if we were mad and pulling his leg. I then said when he get to the top of Big Red, look to the east and see the vast volume of water in Lake Nappanerica and told him about Eyre Creek which did not mean anything to him. By the time that we finally got back into Birdsville it was after 6pm, topping off three great days out in the Simpson. The next day in the Caravan Park I ran into the same man that we saw going out to Big Red the previous night and he commented on the amount of water out there and said that he thought that we were telling him a tall story and had he not seen the water himself he would never believed it himself. We then spent the next two days in Birdsville before returning back down to the Cooper Creek and feeling very pleased with ourselves knowing that our final Simpson task had been completed and only wished that we could have spent longer out there.

Smile like a Crocodile
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