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Big sandhill country – Simpson Desert

Posted on 1 Jun 2024 | 8 comments

Munga Thirri National Park, meaning land of sand hills, is certainly a better name than Simpson Desert. The desert that is about three times the size of Tasmania (where we had just spent eleven weeks), and covers parts of South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. The dunes run roughly north – south, so when you drive from west to east (as we did), you have to go up and over hundreds of these sand dunes. The colours of the sand dunes indicate how old they are. The young ones are paler, getting more red as they age. The last one you cross heading to Birdsville is even called ‘Big Red’ and that’s where the adventure finished for us. From there it’s a short hour and a bit drive to Birdsville on tarmac….

the Simpson Desert crossing on a map of Australia, it is tiny on this scale

the Simpson Desert crossing on a map of Australia, it is tiny on this scale

But we didn’t know this yet when we were getting ready for our adventure. We decided to drive back to Esk via the Simpson desert after we left Tasmania. Once we reached Adelaide we popped into the RAA to buy our Desert Parks Pass and checked if the roads we needed to get to the Mt Dare hotel were open. As it happened the Oodnadatta Track had just opened and was pretty much the only road that was open after the area had some rain not long ago.

We bought some food supplies to last us a few weeks and only had one more thing on our shopping list before we could leave Adelaide. A sand flag. Every vehicle traveling in the Munga Thirri NP has to have a sand flag. It’s basically a 3m long flexible stick you mount on your bull bar. At the top is an orange flag. This helps spotting a vehicle coming towards you when you meet at the top of a sand dune, hopefully before you plow into each other. For the time being we tucked our flag in the awning bag and left Adelaide.

Once we left the tarmac behind in Marree, and started our journey on the Oodnadatta Track, we stopped at pretty much all the sights. We marveled at the vastness of Lake Eyre South from the lookout, nearly had the awning blow away at the Ochre Pits and learned all about the Spring Mounds dotted across the landscape. We poked around the ruins at Strangways and then decided to take a scenic flight over Lake Eyre from William Creek as the waters were reaching ABC Bay, close to the southern end of the lake, before it would start filling up from the south. We had camped at Halligan Bay but couldn’t see the water yet. From the air we realised it was still probably about 20km away. It was amazing to see the water coming in and already surrounding Dulhunty island. We spotted flocks of pelicans too, somehow they know when Lake Eyre fills up and they fly over from the coastal areas (closest is more than 1000km away) to breed. Scientists still don’t know how the pelicans find out when there is water in Lake Eyre….



The Oodnadatta Track runs from Marree to Marla, but not long after stopping at Oodnadatta and its famous Pink Roadhouse we would turn off onto the track to the Mt Dare Hotel, the last chance to fill up with diesel before the next petrol station 550km to the east in Birdsville. Lara can normally easily do 800km on a full tank (about 125 litres), but as we would be driving through sand we didn’t know yet what her fuel consumption would be, so we bought a jerrycan and filled it up too. Not cheap at $3.19 per litre (normal price at the moment is just under $2), but we saw it as an insurance and well worth it for our peace of mind.

After filling up at Mt Dare the adventure really started. Our first stop was Dalhousie Springs. As they are hot springs it’s not the refreshing dip you think you want, but we were very lucky. Not only were we the only people staying there, the temperature had also dropped significantly and the evenings and mornings were nice and cool. We had a skinny dip on arrival and enjoyed another one in the morning after being woken up by the beautiful howling of several dingoes nearby. The little Dalhousie gobies in the springs come to nibble on your dead skin if you sit still enough.

We mounted the sand flag and drove into the Munga Thirri NP, and soon we were driving up and over the first sand dunes. We had lowered the tyre pressures to 22 and 28 psi, but otherwise just cruised on. Lara took the sand dunes all in her stride and we grew more confident after each one. We loved it. Purni Bore was only 70km away and we arrived there for a late lunch. We took the afternoon off and set up camp next to the well. The native wildlife made the stop very memorable. Jude spotted a new bird that literally came to visit our campsite. There were loads of galahs in the trees near the well, and we had already seen a dingo coming in for a drink. So when we walked to the shower that night we weren’t surprised to see a dingo not far from Lara. She was very curious and followed us the whole way to the shower, occasionally coming in quite closely. We were very happy we had decided to walk together and had good head torches.

Later that evening we spotted a few sandy inland mice (pseudomys hermannsburgensis) under the bushes next to Lara. We watched them for a long time, so cute. The night sky was also incredible, and it came after a spectacular sunset. It was a treat and again we had the place all to ourselves. We hadn’t seen a single soul whilst out in the desert.

We continued the next morning and drove to the halfway point in the crossing. There’s nothing there, but we picked a random mini mudflat in between two large dunes. We had sundowners at the top of one of them and marveled at the amazing night sky again, watching a pair of curious dingoes investigate our camp again.

Some of the dunes were harder to cross than others, but in general we cruised up each one in second gear, occasionally in first. There were a dozen or so where we engaged low range and our diff locks to get us up and over. Usually we could see from the bottom when this was needed. But on a few occasions we didn’t make it on our first attempt over the sometimes very loose, soft and deep sands on the crests. If that happened we would go back down, engage low range and go up again. Twice we had to drop the tyre pressures to 18 and 22 psi and cruise up in third gear in low range. But Lara showed us why you want a Defender for this kind of work, she made it all look incredibly easy. The track was also in excellent condition (we thought), and it wasn’t until day 4 that we finally came across other people crossing the Simpson. A group of 6 cars came from east to west, as well as a tag-along tour with 9 vehicles. One guy drove past us in the dark (around 8pm), going west to east like us. It really felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. Magical times.



Towards the end of day four we were reaching an interesting landmark, Poeppel’s corner. It is where the three state borders meet – South Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland. Last year we had visited Cameron’s corner (where the borders of SA, NSW and QLD meet) on our way back from the Travel Film Festival in Bright. Traveling from the west you need to cross Lake Poeppel to get to the actual site. Lake Poeppel is usually another dry salt pan, but when we arrived we spotted some water in the middle. It’s only about 400m across to the other side, but we decided to take the long route around the northern end of the lake following the shoreline. It added another 20km or so to the journey, but that was better than getting stuck in the thick mud we thought. On closer inspection the next day (when we walked the track from the other side) we realised it was indeed the best option.

That night we camped near the lake shore, and that meant we were in the Northern Territory. We had now visited 7 out of 8 states and territories on this trip, only missing out on WA. From Poeppel’s corner it was only 130km to Big Red (Nappanerica) , but we didn’t want to finish the trip that day, we decided to go slow and enjoy the desert for one more night. Which meant we reached the edge of Munga Thirri in the morning. Nappanerica is the largest sand dune located in the east (40m high) of Munga Thirri. Sand dunes in the west are about 3m, and they get bigger and bigger the further east you travel. The entire national park is an erg (dune field) and contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes.

our route across the Simpson Desert with our campsites marked. We drove from the Mt Dare Hotel in the west to Birdsville in the east, a distance of approximately 550km

our route across the Simpson Desert with our campsites marked. We drove from the Mt Dare Hotel in the west to Birdsville in the east, a distance of approximately 550km

Just as we were enjoying the views from the top of the largest sand dune, looking back to where we had come from, we heard an engine. A small truck was coming up the other side. It turned out to be a replica of the famous Birdsville mail truck. The guy who built is was raising money for a charity and a few minutes later his film crew appeared on the top too. We chatted and watched them do a drive down and back up Big Red until we had the place to ourselves again. Just us and the dozens of black and whistling kites flying around. Pretty cool. We also did our own version of having a film crew as we both drove up the big dune in turn. We had let her tyre pressures down to 18 and 22 psi and she cruised up Big Red without any worries. We’re very proud of her.

She also survived all the corrugated roads (some were pretty bad) and the sand, she kept out all the dust and red sand from the cab, the hatches and the interior of the palace, she was a pleasure to drive, had excelled in her diesel per 100km usage on the soft sand (13,5 litres per 100km instead of her usual 12,5 litres per 100km), and kept us (mostly) dry and comfortable when we wanted to be inside. The flyscreen door wasn’t midge proof (but we knew that), so we added a layer of contact to keep them out, and the bed was getting a bit hard to pull out and push back in. But we managed to fix the bed upon return and it is now much easier to pull the bed out.

After enjoying our time on Big Red, and reflecting on a fantastic journey across Munga Thirri, Australia’s largest national park (176,500 square km), we drove down the dune on the eastern side, pumped up our tyres and hopped onto the tarmac road for the remaining 35km to Birdsville where Jon demolished a steak burger in the famous Birdsville hotel and a camel pie from the bakery the next morning. We possibly had the most perfect conditions possible for our crossing. A perfect track, cool weather, not another soul in the desert, and a perfect car to cross the stunning desert with. We felt very lucky indeed!



  1. It feel like I,m with yours on the trip crossing the dessert especially the fly.s.You both enjoy yourself .I love the story.


    • Thanks Jan!! So glad you enjoyed it and remembered the flies!! Hahahaha, big hug from Brisbane! Jx

  2. Een boeiend verhaal!!
    Alle goeds in de nieuwe fase op ‘n nieuwe plek!! Spannend!!

    • dankjewel!! komen jullie op bezoek? 🙂

  3. Wow, what a trip. She (Lara) is performing well. Lots more sand in UAE…

    • We loved it and think you guys would enjoy it out there too, it is beautiful. And yes, a lot more sand to discover in the UAE for sure! 🙂

  4. Wow, so many pelicans! I loved the mice too!

    • aren’t they the cutest little things?! 🙂 and yeah, a friend who lives on the coast here was commenting they had lost all their pelicans, we told them we knew where they were!!

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