Buy-and-Fly DIY Adventure: Down-Under Desert Crossing
Story by Roseann Hanson Images by Jonathan and Roseann Hanson
It is a cool winter day in July, the Australian bulldust tamed by recent rains so I can enjoy a clear view of the passing show of wildflowers out the side window.
Not for the first time I look across the vehicle at Jonathan and we grin: four months prior we had been planning a trip
to England for July and here we were instead, crossing the Simpson Desert, in our own custom expedition-camper Land Cruiser Troopy.
As it often happens with us, it just . . . happened. In March, when I was booking tickets to England to visit friend and colleague Tom Sheppard, as usual I went to Kayak.com, punched in the dates for July 2016, and did a double-take: fares were starting at $2000 USD per person RT to London. That is twice what we usually spend on our semi- annual visits across the Pond.
And just then, like magic, a little Kayak fare-alert pops up: “Sale! RT Los Angeles to Sydney $849.” Whoa. We’ve always wanted to visit Australia...
Passengers: 2; Depart LAX: 14 July 2016; Return LAX: 11 August 2016; Extra bags: 1 each ($2
ea. add-on special). Special diet requests: Nope.
Calculating fare . . . $851 + tax USD each person RT on Air New Zealand. Continue with purchase? “Hey, Jonathan . . .”
Done. Australia here we come.
Fast-forward to July 13 as we assemble in Los Angeles at the home of fellow overlanders and adventurers Joe and Lara. With us are Graham Jackson and Connie Rodman, Overland Expo’s training director and our team’s staff HQ manager, respectively. Shortly after our leap, we dangled the Down Under carrot and cheap airfare and they only hesitated a few minutes longer than we did.
And so the fun began, tossing around ideas of where to explore a truly diverse and enticingly large-yet-accessible country. Since Graham and Connie had been planning to visit Australia for years, they had quite a bit of research already completed. Graham suggested a crossing of the Simpson Desert via the Madigan Line.
Cecil Madigan (1889 – 1947) was an Australian explorer and geologist. He was involved in geological surveys in Antarctica in 1912 before serving in the British Army during WWI, most notably the Battle of the Somme. Throughout the 1930s, Madigan participated in numerous aerial surveys of the “trackless areas” of central Australia; he named the Simpson Desert after the president of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.
In 1939, Madigan led the first major expedition across the Simpson Desert and his route, roughly 900 kilometers (559 miles) from Alice Springs, Northern Territories, to Birdsville, Queensland, is now marked by a series of 25 brass markers and is considered one of the more remote and challenging Australia desert tracks one can explore today, crossing some 1300 sand dunes.
Initially the plan was to source vehicles from one of our Overland Expo Aussie exhibitors, since many of them had been urging us to visit and frequently offered up loaners. But the short notice and bad timing (several big press events for the larger companies had all company vehicles tied up) had us come up empty.
We then looked into renting a couple of Land Cruisers from Britz or similar (from everything we had read about the Madigan Line, we felt Land Cruisers would be advisable over HiLuxes or similar, for the stronger engine and cargo capacity for extra fuel and water).
But not only was a rental looking like $7500 minimum per vehicle (not including camping gear, or recovery equipment), we also learned we could not use them for a crossing of the Simpson Desert on the Madigan Line, which was one of the “no go” places since it is not a standard tourist route.
About this time Jonathan started emailing me and Graham vehicle listings from websites Gumtree.com and AUStoUSA.com. The latter specializes in selling 25-year-old and older Australian vehicles to Americans and handling the shipping and importation details. Depending on the year purchased, we could drive the vehicle around Australia, and then import it to the US with very little hassle (see sidebar, page 44).
On Gumtree he was finding fully outback-kitted vehicles for very reasonable prices. One petrol Toyota Prado (essentially a 4Runner equivalent) had a roof tent, awning, fridge, and all the necessary camping equipment and was listed for $9000 AUD ($6870 USD)—about the price for a rental after taxes and registration and insurance. Land Cruiser Troop Carriers— “Troopies”—on both sites were showing up for around $10,000 to $12,000 AUD, but with pretty high mileage and most in this range were older than 1991 and equipped with the less-desirable 2H diesel engine. Newer ones (1992 to 1994) were around $15,000 AUD.
At the very favorable rate of exchange this was putting our own “ultimate” overland vehicle well within reach. Over the last 15 years we’ve driven Troopies across the Libyan Desert in Egypt and throughout Tanzania and Kenya. The 1HZ diesel engine is the definition of tough, long-wearing, reliable, and unstoppable, proven by hundreds of thousands of them in service in the toughest conditions on the planet, used and abused by safari guides, NGO workers, and military service people worldwide.
A couple weeks of searching both sites and Jonathan found a 1991 one-owner Troopy in superb condition, with just 220,000 kilometers on the clock. Aluminum bull bar, no winch, 1HZ, 5-speed. During the searches we had the good luck of connecting with AUStoUSA’s Phil Newell, their Gold Coast operations manager and an ace vehicle broker. Phil went to work on our behalf to get a good price. Unfortunately during the time we were sorting things out the owner decided to trade it in at a dealer and we lost it.
Then we found a 1993 at a dealer in Darwin. The photos showed a very clean truck with 244,000 km (151,000 miles) with the 1HZ and 5-speed transmission, an ARB bull bar (no winch), TJM suspension, Bridgestone tires in good condition, A/C, and very clean original interior, for $22,000 AUD ($16,800 USD).
Working with both Toni Young at Dustin’s Auto Sales and Phil, we got the truck for the asking price (the dealer would not negotiate down). One bank transfer and several registration forms later, we were the proud owners of our very own Troopy, which Phil was arranging for transport to Sydney for a reasonable amount (about $1300 USD, a bargain considering the distance and that part of the journey was by train). The whole process was made enormously easy through the professional assistance of Toni and Phil.
Graham and Connie had a harder time finding a vehicle. Dyed-in-the-wool Land Rover loyalists, they looked at Defenders but could find none expedition-worthy in their price range. At the 11th hour they found a higher-mileage (431,000 km) 1994 1HZ75 five-speed with front and rear lockers, OME suspension, factory bullbar, Kaymar rear bumper, dual-batteries, and interior drawer-deck system for only $11,500 AUD ($8700 USD) and arranged for delivery from Brisbane to Sydney.
Let the adventure begin.