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. 

OverlandExpo-Hanson-2587.jpg

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...

Click.

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. 

Iconic animals of Australia: Emu and koala at Taronga Zoo, and wild kangaroo, Queensland.

Iconic animals of Australia: Emu and koala at Taronga Zoo, and wild kangaroo, Queensland.

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.

Everything you have heard about Australia is true: 

The Outback (the vast and wild desert, grasslands and woodlands comprising the center) is one of the world’s finest overlanding destinations. Actually the whole country is—the stunning coasts, the pastoral highlands, the soaring mountains, and the vibrant cities. The wildlife is legendary for its uniqueness. Even for those of us who have spent considerable time traveling and working in Africa, the biodiversity and oddities of evolution on this long-isolated continent astounds. I don’t think I will ever tire of watching the locomotion of a kangaroo. 

Beer is a national passion. A good pub can be found nearly everywhere. (So can great coffee. Maybe something to do with the volume of beer consumed, not sure, need to test a bit more.) 

The people are friendly. Really, really friendly—and polite. All the Australians who have come to Overland Expos have been exceedingly nice but we were not prepared for the whole damn country to be filled with their likes. In 6,000 kilometers over nearly a month, we encountered just three Australians who were rude (a fourth, a woman at the roadhouse in Kulgera, was from the Balkans, so we won’t count her). 

And the overlanding. The legendary outback overlanders are the most-prepared, most-traveled people we have ever seen. For a continent with fewer people total than southern California, the number of Aussies exploring the Outback in exceptionally well-kitted vehicles is enormous. While driving tracks in far corners of Queensland, Northern Territories, New South Wales and South Australia, we passed more fully equipped overland vehicles than attend an Overland Expo. Our plain-jane Troopies were unremarkable and common, like Ford F150s in Arizona.

Suffice it to say, we fell in love with Australia—and Australians—within a few hours of landing in Sydney, on the southeast coast. 

Sydney Harbor.

Sydney Harbor.

July is mid-winter in Oz, and the weather was both cool-and-rainy and warm-and-sunny, alternating often in a span of 30 minutes. Our friends Geoff and Catherine Farland picked us up and whisked us to their home in North Sydney; the Farlands’ son, Alistair, was one of our presenters at Overland Expo 2014 EAST, on his way down the Americas on his first big adventure on his KLR motorcycle. Alistair was passionate about inspiring his Millennial generation to get out exploring the world, and he charmed many of us at Overland Expo. 

Tragically, he died in an accident a few weeks after the show, but with his parents we have built a charity fund to help inspire young people like him to pursue their own adventures—and keep his passion alive (see ConserVentures.org/change-your-world-fund). We were honored to carry Alistair’s Aussie flag with us on our journey (photo, above, starting out in Alice Springs; as of August 2016, the flag was on its way to Burning Man with several of Al’s friends).

With little time to sightsee (much to the Farlands’ dismay), we headed down to Expedition Centre to meet our Land Cruisers. Finding Daniel Fluckiger was one of those gems that every once in a while drop down out of the internet. We had been googling “Land Cruiser expedition campers” to get ideas for our future Troopy, and three companies in Australia surfaced. I emailed all three. Only one replied, happily the one with the pop-top and camper interior we admired the most. Daniel was professional and enthusiastic, and—maybe he regrets this-—willing to take on the work of converting our truck into a camper in a very short timeframe.

As the photos attest, we were astounded to find the superb-quality pop-top ready, along with an amazing amount of other work: solar power, dual batteries, full service, and installation of Warn winch, ARB lights, MaxTrax, and tie-down points for our Kanz Kitchen and National Luna fridge.

Vehicles sorted, we then embarked on a three-day shopping spree that bumped the GNP of Australia by more than a few points: ARB in St. Peters (recovery gear, tool rolls, Hi-Lift and mount, camp lighting, deflators and more); Kathmandu, a Patagonia-equivalent (warmer boots for me, chairs for Graham and Connie); and Anaconda, a sporting goods superstore that had good prices on cookware, Dutch ovens (“potjie” in South Africa”), utensils, and water carriers. We also girded our loins and went to Ikea for bedding (best prices anywhere on top-quality down and cotton sheets; note: it’s just as creepy in Australia as it is in the U.S.). For the rest of our kitchenware and food we found Woolworth’s (“Woolies”) to be the best (forget Target there, it’s not the same quality as the U.S.). 

The fourth morning after landing we woke early to load up the trucks—to find a decidedly steady rain blanketing Sydney. Cold and damp, we were on the road by 11 am, stopping along the way at Springbok Delights to pick up our pre-packed meat order (Australia has a lot of South African ex-pats, and thankfully these run a butcher shop of the first order—everything vacuum-packed and pre-frozen). By that evening we had traversed the southern Highlands, a paradise of green pastures separated by rolling rivers and rocky canyons with tall eucalyptus, and hove up in Wagga Wagga (just “Wagga” to locals), the first of the old gateway towns to the Outback.

The next 72 hours were a blur of 700-km days as we crossed a vast portion of Australia’s heartland from Wagga to Port Augusta on the coast (north of Adelaide) to Alice Springs via Coober Pedy and Marla. Every night we broke our “don’t drive at night” rule, and paid for it with more near-misses with kangaroos than we can count. It’s a wonder there are any ‘roos left in this country at all, given the obvious carnage on display each morning.

Because we had decided on the Madigan crossing, which required a full nine to 10 days in the desert, we had to move quickly to Alice—not our preferred travel pace. As a result we only had a few hours in the legendary outback locale of Coober Pedy, best known for opals (and the site of filming for Mad Max and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Nonetheless we managed to find a family-owned shop has been mining opals since the 60s—dad mines them, mom cuts and polishes them, and son sets them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. Jonathan bought me a gorgeous ring for my birthday. As they say, “Good onya, mate.”

Alice Springs was much more civilized than we’d anticipated from accounts in the earlier part of the last century. We had a strange but hilarious experience at the Overlander’s Steakhouse, which we had to visit for obvious reasons. Take our word for it: don’t, unless you like overcooked meat, bad service, and silly tourist stuff.

Finally on the fifth day we struck out across the Simpson Desert on the Old Andado Track, a well-worn, dusty and corrugated two-track. We made a slight 50 km detour to the Old Andado homestead, a historic property now held in a trust and operating as a living museum (oldandado.com.au). The old tin-roofed station home and outbuildings are preserved just as Molly Clark left them; her grandchildren and a troop of volunteers keep up her tradition of welcoming travelers today. Well worth the stop (which for us included scones freshly baked by caretaker Glenys Eberle).

The next day we began the actual Madigan Line, picking it up on the far side of the Mac Clark Conservation Reserve. This was the beginning of the “red center,” the actual Simpson Desert—and we were surprised to find profusions of blooms and large areas of standing water. Six weeks earlier waves of storms pummelled the region and made most of the tracks impassable. We lucked out and for the rest of our 900 kilometer run across the Simpson we were treated to a garden show.

Online accounts of the Madigan, even as recently as last year, made it sound difficult to drive and even to find, with occasional stretches where one would be relying solely on GPS waypoints to find a path across the dunes between the Madigan camp markers. But several articles in major magazines and online forums boosted numbers, and it appeared from the state of the track and confirmed from logbooks placed en route that as many as a hundred vehicles had made the crossing since May. Thus what we found was a perfectly clear track which, except for a handful of the steeper dune crests, could have easily been accomplished in high-range 4WD. The biggest challenges arose on crests where inexperienced or careless drivers had either driven too fast or with tires at street pressure (probably both), and created massive “hoon holes” that maxed out our suspension travel and unloaded the offside tires. After democratically collecting one failed hill climb for each driver, we figured out the ideal combination of speed and gearing to successfully negotiate the remaining 1,129 or so dunes with no drama.

Despite the relative ease of the route, it was clear we were in remote country, given nearly 1,000 km between supply points and the fact that we saw only three other parties on the actual Madigan Line in seven days of travel. Our Troopies each had the factory-supplied 180-liter (47-gallon) dual fuel tanks, and we each brought an extra full jerry can. Graham had calculated we’d need to average 11 mpg to make it from Alice Springs to Birdsville on the tanks alone; in the event the 1HZs returned an almost identical 16 mpg—impressive given constant 4WD use and aired-down tires for the sand.       

Despite the relative ease of the route, it was clear we were in remote country, given nearly 1,000 km between supply points and the fact that we saw only three other parties on the actual Madigan Line in seven days of travel. Our Troopies each had the factory-supplied 180-liter (47-gallon) dual fuel tanks, and we each brought an extra full jerry can. Graham had calculated we’d need to average 11 mpg to make it from Alice Springs to Birdsville on the tanks alone; in the event the 1HZs returned an almost identical 16 mpg—impressive given constant 4WD use and aired-down tires for the sand.       

You’d think that crossing 1,000-plus dunes would get dull after a while, but it was nothing like that. Over each crest we found slightly different habitats, different vistas, different birds.

 Sometimes there would be a dense copse of coolibah or wattle trees, perfect shade to stop and set up lunch or a quick brew using our volcano kettles. Sometimes the valley would be choked with razor-edged spinifex grass—the bane of outback explorers since Burke and Wills. 

As for birds, Graham quipped that it feels like the world’s biggest pet store exploded. Birds we are used to seeing only in cages are here in their natural habitat. Startling green budgerigars (“budgies”) take the place of sparrows, flying overhead in chattering flocks. Wild, perhaps, but hardly afraid: one landed nonchalantly on Jonathan’s cap as he was trying to photograph it. Startling white cockatoos never failed to elicit double-takes. And of course there were the decidedly non-pet-store six-foot-tall emus and brawny wedge-tailed eagles.

Despite spotting frequent tracks of camels, we saw only one, watching us complacently from a hilltop. Dingo tracks, too, were plentiful, but the animals themselves stayed hidden.

One thing didn’t change along the Madigan: campsite after campsite roofed by a luminescent Milky Way, lit by a campfire, and redolent of grilled lamb or boerewors. If we’d had the fuel reserves on our last night we might well have blown off our airline reservations and simply reversed course to Alice. Instead our exit route took us down the Hay River Track, then east on the QAA Line to the famous Big Red dune, the last obstacle before Birdsville. The dune proved no trouble in third-then-second low range, and soon we rolled into “town” (permanent population 70) and up to the legendary Birdsville Hotel, in operation since 1884. Unlike so many other icons, the hotel’s pub and restaurant retain their historic flair, and we celebrated our Simpson Desert crossing in appropriate surroundings. 

And then? Too soon it was time to air up and head back to Sydney. This did not, however, signal the end of our Australian adventures, just the end of the first chapter. Our Land Cruisers are back with Daniel at the Expedition Centre for a few more modifications. We’ll be back to pick them up and head . . . well, we’re not sure yet. There’s still most of a continent to explore.


RESOURCES

Buying a vehicle sight-unseen from 6,000 miles away can be nerve-wracking, and will never be completely without risk, but there are ways to minimize the stress and potential problems.

Phil Newell of AUStoUSA.com has much experience buying and shipping vehicles from Australia to the U.S. The site includes a constantly updated list of available vehicles, with all pricing including shipping, port fees, etc. specified. You can literally click “Add to cart” on a Land Cruiser. For shopping on your own, gumtree.com.au has dozens of ads, and if you find a likely vehicle Phil Newell can act as your representative to inspect (if it’s close to him) and purchase. Dustin’s Autos, in Darwin, specializes in Toyota Land Cruisers, and is worth checking.  http://www.dustinsautos.com.au

Things to check:

  • Rust. Most Australians live near the coast, and fishing and beach driving are popular. It’s far cheaper to buy a vehicle with little or no rust than to repair it later. Ask for detailed photos.
  • Current registration. Foreigners can easily re-register vehicles with current plates; doing so on a vehicle with expired plates is extremely difficult.
  • Maintenance records. The 1HZ and 1-HDT require timing belt replacement every 100,000 kilometers. If there are no records of replacement, have it done. In general a full service is wise.

 Insurance. Progressive in Australia is excellent.  http://progressiveonline.com.au

Storage: If leaving a vehicle between trips, outdoors storage is easily arranged; however, very few enclosed garages have doors of sufficient height. 

Repairs/modifications:  Daniel Fluckiger at the Expedition Centre in Sydney (http://www.expeditioncentre.com.au) is an experienced overlander, and can transform a Troopy into a fully equipped and comfortable camper with standing headroom, a double bed, and full cabinetry. He can also organize repairs and maintenance.

Driving: 

  • New South Wales, and Sydney especially, is a land of (expensive) speed cameras, and lots of tolls. Buy a prepaid toll package from https://www.tollpay.com.au or https://www.roamexpress.com.au. And don’t speed.
  • National parks usually require permits, which can be purchased in advance. Check each park’s website for information. If you plan to drive the Madigan, you will need the Desert Parks Pass from South Australia (http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/entry-fees/parks-passes/desert-parks-pass); a permit for Munga Thirri National Park in Queensland (http://www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/munga-thirri/); and permission from Adria Downs to cross their land (no fires allowed, and restricted camping). Contact: Don & Judy Rayment, Adria Downs, Birdsville Q 4482; T: 07 4656 3321; adriadowns at activ8 dot net dot au
  • If at all possible, avoid driving in the bush at night. The kangaroo carnage is easily seen by the sides of roads during the day; kangaroos are mostly nocturnal and difficult to avoid at speed. If night driving is unavoidable, a good set of driving lamps is a must.

Other Resources & Tips

Springbok's Delight, Sydney (superb butcher and green grocer; will flash freeze purchases)

ARB St. Peter’s was our store of choice, but all ARB stores are professional and well-stocked, with excellent installation departments (all ARB products and more) — http://www.arb.com.au/stores/arb-st-peters/

Anaconda (Big discount camping supply)

Kathmandu (More upmarket camping equipment)

Desert Dwellers, Alice Springs (Huge selection of camping equipment)

Arnott’s (http://www.arnotts.com.au) Tim Tams. Addictive. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

 

 

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