The Simpson Desert. Vast, untamed expanse of sand in the middle of the world’s largest island. Taking three times as long to cross as the Sahara, the French Line across the Simpson is one of the most epic rides to be had in Australia.
It’s the fucking Catalina Wine Mixer of my season with OAT.
And with the floods subsided and my shoulder healed, I was finally getting my shot.
Each morning on the track felt like Christmas… I woke up with a giddy anticipation I hadn’t known since I was a rugrat tearing through wrapping paper. And with each day I got a little bit better at managing the sand, the dunes, the Simpson.
I was determined to finish the track with my body and bike in as good condition as they had been when I began, keen to prove Mags wrong that I could in fact return one of his vehicles in usable condition.
So what’s so great about riding a motorcycle across the desert?
Imagine skiing the best run of your life; lots of speed, deep powder, sweeping turns. Now imagine that never ending until you release the throttle.
Thanks to the miracle of the internal combustion engine, a motorcycle can ski up the hills as well. Each kilometers is more fun than the last and after an hour or two in the saddle the balance, engine control and focus just clicks.
When we pulled up for the night, I collapsed into my chair at the fire with the kind of spent-satisfaction you have after a six-hour shag session.
We passed a few other groups of interest along the way. A group of blokes on Suzuki DR650’s, a big pack of camels, and a team of journalists reviewing 4x4s… including a four wheel drive Mini and a Chinese Great Wall SUV. Our riders reckoned they were wasting their time and ruining the track, but I was glad to see someone try something different.
The west-to-east crossing (which we took) is easier than the other way because the dunes aren’t as steep. Shaped by the prevailing wind, heading eastbound allows you to enjoy a long run-up up the dune, then a steep drop into the next gully. The dunes also get bigger as you head east, giving a nice and linear progression of difficulty.
Right up to the boss: Big Red.
Whether you’re on a motorcycle, 4×4, camel, or unicycle, Big Red is one of those “boxes to tick” if you’re off roading in Australia. Just about thirty kilometers from Birdsville, it’s fairly easy to get to but a proper monolith to behold.
The last time I had seen it was from the passenger seat of the Isuzu, chocking back winces as pain shot through my recently-destroyed AC joint.
Now I was back. On a bike. And I wanted revenge.
By the time we reached Big Red the hour was late, shadows were long, and everyone was dying for a beer.
I sensed that Carl and Bruce, having already surmounted Big Red years before, would be content to bypass it and head straight to the pub. But I knew I’d only be back here once, and I’d be driving the truck. There was no way I was going to get this close without having a go.
I stabbed the throttle ceremonially.
But I resisted a sandy burnout, and walked up to speed.
I heard Magnus’ voice in my head, like Obi-Wan Kenobi guiding Luke Skywalker out of the Hoth;
“…Up straight, steady application of power…”
I was getting closer and Big Red was growing.
It looked far bigger from the saddle of this bike than the cockpit of our truck.
Hands were starting to sweat as I picked up speed.
I strangled the horn to scatter the desert pigeons out of my path, the dune was towering over me like a tidal wave and I was experiencing genuine fear.
The front wheel hit the dune and I powered-on all the way, yelling into my helmet and leaning as hard as I could against the force of acceleration.
“GIVE IT HELL!”
It was all over in seconds… I was standing on the top, heart still racing at full throttle, stomach still at the bottom of the hill, and the bike idling calmly as though nothing had happened.
I allowed myself a fist pump and shut the bike down to avoid overheating.
After some photos it was time to hit the bar. An easy descent and a fun 30 kilometers later we were riding out of the sunset and pulling up once again at the famous Birdsville Pub, where people with names like “Wizard” tell you about the time they crossed the Simpson in a nitrogen-powered rickshaw.
But no matter how tall the tales get in that bar, I knew I had made it across and that’s all I needed.
In a couple months time I’ll be back… on twice as many wheels, which will be ten times as hard. I can only hope for as much success as the desert allows.
The Gunbarrel Highway is considered one of the great Rites Of Passage for off-roaders Australia-wide.
The “highway” was originally surveyed by Len Beadell to help the Australian military recover weapons tested in center of the nation. Len would drive his Series I Land Rover through the bush, then turn around and flash a mirror at a dude following him in a grader- who simply aimed for the light and floored it.
The 60-year-old grader is still on display in a town called Giles, but hasn’t seen action in some time.
The track may straight enough, but it’s anything but straightforward. Huge ruts, deep sand, blind corners and wild animals scampering all over the place make the Gunbarrel one of the most challenging sections of the Pan-Australian expedition.
Consequentially, that also makes it the most fun.
Magnus came into his element as the track got rougher and rougher, hustling the 8-ton supertanker support truck though holes in the trees and ruts that looked like they could swallow a camel.
The suspension clamored for mercy as we charged and drifted down the track. Magnus offered one of his typically cheeky comments;
“This is a graded highway you know”
“Well, hasn’t been graded since 1950, but… it was graded.”
The road opened up just enough for some serious powersliding and we dropped a gear, threading one corner into another on the edge of control.
Just as the tires started working up some serious heat, the next bend revealed a fat camel parked square in the middle of the track.
The exhaust brake exhaled like a dragon as Mags downshifted, scrubbing speed in desperation.
I looked at the piece of meat defrosting on the dash with dread (yes, there almost always was one). Not only was that camel’s body perfectly inline with our windscreen, but 3 kilograms of frozen chicken would be launched at my face if the airbags deployed.
The beast got the message and ran for it, missing our bull bar by a meter.
Returning the truck to a steady canter, Mags asked;
“So. Think you’ll be able to drive this on the next trip?”
“No race car driving.”