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DESTINATIONS - BUSH CHARACTERS, YARNS & POETRY

BUSH CHARACTER - Denis Bartell
This tough old bloke has done it all!

Denis Bartell is one of Australia’s modern pioneers and was justifiably awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the general division, in 1989. Dick Smith, founder of Australian Geographic Magazine, presented him with its Adventurer of the Year Award Gold Medallion 1994. If you don’t know the whole Denis Bartell story, check out his website: http://www.desertwalker.com.au/

We’re grateful to Denis for the following story and poem about the now world famous sand hill, Big Red:

Back in 1953 I was erecting windmills and installing pumping equipment throughout the South Australian Outback.  

In mid-1970 I did my first west-to-east solo vehicle crossing of the mighty Simpson Desert; the largest parallel-sand-dune desert in the world.  

I must confess to some relief when I finally crested that last major sand dune before Birdsville, although I am a little embarrassed to report that I failed in four attempts to climb it until, in desperation, I had to dig my way over the last few remaining metres of sand, just as the sun was setting.(A few of us can sympathise, Denis. – Ed)

That night is when  this dune became my special place whenever I crossed the Simpson: a perch on the top of a dome of fiery sand that breathes solitude and isolation; a timeless realm where one could sit and ponder the formation of a unique empty wilderness of rolling dunes.  

The Wangkangurru people departed the desert about 120 years ago, but here you can mingle with the ghosts of the aboriginal inhabitants who once called it their home and were intimate with its innermost secrets.  

It is a place to relive the stories of the early white explorers: Sturt, Lindsay, Poeppel, Wells, Colson and Madigan, as well as the construction crews who built the first vehicle-access route across the desert. We have them to thank for today’s relatively easy travel that now-numerous crowds of tourists enjoy.  It is also a place to plan more desert crossings, perhaps, or maybe just a place to be.

I have crossed the Simpson Desert by vehicle more than 70 times, mostly solo; have walked it solo and unaided (no backup vehicles) west-to-east at the age of 51 and again north-to-south a year later.  

I have ridden camels over it when I took Danny Colson – the Aboriginal son of Ted, the first white man to cross this area in 1936 – on a re-enactment of his father’s journey.  This trip gave fulfilment to Danny’s long held dream of forming an intimate and spiritual connection to a father he had never met.  

I have located Aboriginal well sites that had been lost for over 80 years and retraced the routes of many early white explorers.  

I fondly remember my solo, 540cc two-stroke, Suzuki 4X4 vehicle crossing of the desert east-to-west in 1977, via The Centre.  It was a journey that was considered impossible, due to the steep easterly faces of the dunes. It was a seven-day adventure, navigating by compass ‘due west’, with the only nav’ check being crossing the Colson Track on Day Six.  I well remember the trackless isolation, intense solitude and deafening silence. 

I have been honoured and proud to act as backup to my daughter and her three girlfriends (The Desert Mums) on their west-to-east walk across the Simpson Desert which raised more than $180,000 for breast cancer research. 

I also was backup for my youngest son, who also walked the desert. Initially walking at about 60km per day for the first three days he unfortunately had to reduce distance to about 40km, due to extremely painful shin splints. However, despite that he accomplished his mission and made me one very proud dad.  He said, “He’d ticked a box”.

In 1979, I drove a Suzuki 800cc 4×4 to retrace Madigan’s 1939 camel crossing of the Northern Simpson: the first vehicle to do so. The track is now known as the Madigan Line and is a favourite of a growing number of desert adventurers.

About 40 years ago I wrote an article for a magazine on crossing the Simpson Desert and happened to mention a large sand hill which I called ‘Big Red’ and that it was a special place for me.

A few years later I was talking to Taffy at the Birdsville Pub and he asked: “Denis, where the hell is this sand hill you write about?  I’ve had numerous travellers wanting to visit it and I don’t know where to send them.”  

When I told him it was the big sand hill just to the west of the stockyard, there was instant recognition:  “Mate, that’s what we locals call the Nappanerica Dune”.  

My reply was: “ Well Taffy, I’ve dubbed it Big Red and that’s how it will always be known by me and, besides, it is a fitting description; don’t you think?”

Well, one man’s special place to sit and watch the sun go down has now become a must-see for all who visit Birdsville.  What could be better than a sunset drink, relaxing on top of the most talked about sand hill in the Simpson Desert?  It is truly a destination in its own right.

It’s famous now, all right and thousands of people use it as a backdrop to their yearly Big Red Bash event. It’s also the challenge for 4×4 vehicle enthusiasts, who use it as a testing ground for their vehicles and to exercise their driving skills.

Do I regret that my place of solitude and reflection is no longer?  Hell no!  I’m thrilled that so many people share it and it is exciting to see the growing number of tourists who visit for a small taste of what the Simpson Desert is all about.  

Visit Big Red and, while you are there, how about a toast to the Wangkangurru people who once called the desert home and the early explorers who entered what was to them the unknown – in this unique place and throughout the Australian outback.

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