What is the Simpson Desert all about?
If you zoom all the way out on your GPS the heart of Australia looks like an endless stretch of red dirt, but when you load up the 4WD and head towards the red centre you’ll discover for yourself just how varied and wild this landscape really is. Smack bang in the centre is a region known as the Simpson Desert, an inland sea of 1100 bright red moving sand dunes covering over 170,000 square kilometres, and the place you’ll find one of the last true wilderness areas’ in Australia.
Things to do in the Simpson Desert
At first glance there’s not really a great deal going on in a desert, but there’s far more too the Simpson than you’d think.
Top 8 things to do in the Simpson Desert
- Climb Big Red
At the very start (or right at the end depending on your direction) of the Simpson Desert is an absolute monster of a sand dune called Big Red, standing 40m tall climbing it is a rite of passage for any would-be travellers. It’s steep, soft, rutted, and offers absolutely magical views of the surrounding plains so is well worth the effort, just leave the camper at the bottom yeah?
- Take a dip at Dalhousie
Over 500km to the west of Big Red with an entire desert in between is a place called Dalhousie Springs, a popular tourist destination, it’s a literal oasis in the middle of the outback. There’s showers and toilet blocks here, but more importantly, nestled in the middle of the trees is a hot natural spring perfect for rinsing a few day’s worth of red dirt out of your underwear.
- Watch the Sunset over the Salt Flats
Something entirely unique to a desert environment, the Simpson Desert is littered with salt flats right in the heart of it. Formed by inland lakes drying out under the harsh sun, what’s left is huge expanses of near perfectly flat salt. They’re the perfect place to kick back with a few cold ones, watch the sunset across the ‘lake’ before heading back to camp.
- Stand in Three States at Once
The Simpson Desert is such an absolute monster of a 4x4 location it crosses three states, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory. Because of this, right in the middle is a ripper little spot called Poeppels Corner. Right on the edge of a salt flat there’s a marker showing the exact spot all three states intersect, it’s a great photo op and somewhere to jump out and stretch the legs.
- Camp on Top of a Sand Dune
There’s nothing better than kicking back by a roaring campfire with a few good mates, unless of course, if that campfire is built on the most vivid red dirt you’ve ever seen. Want to step it up a notch again? Keep an eye out for tracks off into the scrub on top of sand dunes and you can find yourself a little slice of wilderness all for yourself with views forever in every direction.
- Go Camel Tracking
The desert might seem barren at first glance but if you look a little deeper it’s absolutely teaming with life. If you’re travelling around sunset or sunrise you’re bound to bump into a dingo or two on their daily routine, but with an even keener eye you might be lucky enough to spot a wild camel along the way. Keep an eye out between dunes and you can often find their tracks amongst dried-up river beds
- Watch a Country Music Festival
The desert might not be the first place you think of for live music but every year at the base of big red, a huge country music festival is held. It’s packed with live acts, entertainment, and plenty of other travellers out for the multi-day experience. If you’re a first timer and would prefer to do the crossing knowing there’s another car or two around, this is the time to do it.
- A day at the races
Just a short drive out of the desert towards civilisation you’ll find a town called Birdsville. It’s basically just a couple of pubs and a servo or two but it’s also home to an event called the Birdsville Races. Think of it like an outback Melbourne Cup and you’re pretty much bang on the money. It’s a must-see event and worth the journey for that alone.
How to cross the Simpson Desert
Whether you’re coming from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, or Timbuktu there’s no simple route to get to or from the Simpson Desert. What’s far more important is how you’re crossing it. Due to the natural winds in the area the sand dunes themselves have a steeper easterly edge compared to their westerly edge. It means if you’re crossing east to west, you’re in for a far tougher slog than if you’re heading west to east.
You’ll need to plan your trip out based on what you’re doing around it afterwards too. You may be better off doing the difficult crossing before you do a bigger touring leg, or leave the crossing till last. Either way, unless
Location camping fees and permits
Crossing the Simpson Desert is a reasonably expensive journey by the time you take fuel and food into consideration, but accommodation is relatively cheap. There are no hotels so you’ll be swagging it every night. As a result, the Desert Parks pass to cross does include mandatory camping fees. At $171 for the pass it does seem steep but it is valid for a full 12 months and allows camping up to 21 days in a row, so you get your money’s worth.
Top 4WD Tips for crossing the Simpson Desert
- Use a Sand Flag
Head on collisions are a very real concern when cresting dunes, and a huge sand flag up high helps both parties spot each other before disaster strikes.
- Monitor the UHF Channels
You won’t have much radio interreference out here so leave a UHF on scan to give you a heads up for oncoming convoys.
- Carry a set of Recovery Tracks
As the day heats up and the sand gets softer you more than likely will get stuck. A set of traction boards shoved under a wheel or two are often all it takes to get you moving again.
- Tyre Pressures are Key
Footprint is king in soft terrain like this so don’t be afraid to drop your tyre pressures. The exact pressure is typically dictated by your tyre size and vehicle weight so give the manufacturer of your tyres a bell and ask for their advice.
- Bring extra fuel
Driving in sand is hard work for your 4x4s drivetrain and your fuel bill will reflect that. A safe amount to factor is 1.5 times your normal range. If you’ll typically get 500km to a full tank on the open highway you’ll need to bring a full tank and a half again in jerry cans.
- Leave the Camper at Home
Not only do they damage the tracks, they also make your journey far harder than it needs to be. Leave the camper alone, load a swag or tent up on the roof and keep things simple.
Tell people your plans, and when to expect you out – There’s no phone reception for days when doing this trip so make sure you leave a detailed plan with friends at home, and better yet, hire a sat phone or PLB just to give you that extra sense of security.
Experience true wilderness
The Simpson Desert isn’t only one of those bucket list destinations, it’s also a side of Australia very few people ever get to experience. In the little over a week it’ll take you to head out, cross the desert and head back you’ll get to experience first-hand not only how isolated this country is, but how beautiful it can be as well. Make no mistake, the Simpson Desert is 100% bonafide adventure in low-range.
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