DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
OTA joined Outback legend, Jol Fleming, for a testing trek through the Simpson Desert and up the remote Hay River Track. The trip proved to be an excellent workout for three Isuzu D-Max Utes – two towing camper trailers and one with a slide-on camper.
This arduous trip aimed to check the ability of Isuzu D-Max Utes in some of the toughest off-road conditions in Australia, towing camper trailers in areas normally the preserve of solo vehicles and to weigh up the pros and cons of towing or carrying a slide-on camper.
So that’s how our party of three D-Maxs came to be parked out front of the bakery in Birdsville on the morning after the famous Races, waiting for the little convoy to assemble and head for Alice Springs – the hard way.
A permit is required to drive along the Hay River Track; contact Jol Fleming (08) 8952 3359.
We had two D-Max manual-transmission models – one Double Cab pulling a GT Camper and the other a Space Cab tray-back with a Carry Me Camper clamped on – and an automatic-transmission Double Cab pulling a Cub Kamparoo Brumby. The latter vehicle was fitted with an after-market EFS suspension kit that gave it better ride and improved ground clearance.
For those who haven’t driven across The Simpson, some background is necessary. The straight-line ‘QAA’ and ‘French’ tracks that traverse some of the tallest dunes in Australia were originally put in as seismic lines, during the 1960s oil-exploration years.
It’s true that trailers are generally discouraged from crossing The Simpson, other than via the Rig Road, but we wanted to check out if this was a legitimate restriction. Our crew has had many years of trailer towing, up to road train size and we can back trailers precisely, so we figured we were well-equipped to check out the situation. Also, we’d made a point of choosing two lightweight campers, to minimise drag and ball weight load on the towing vehicles.
After a couple of refusals at one dune, while we played around with tyre pressures, we worked out the optimum levels: 16 psi in the fronts and 20 psi in the rears of the towing Utes; 10-12psi in the trailer tyres; and an 18psi/22psi combination for the slide-on camper ute.
With all tyres evenly bagged out the grunty diesels conquered the dunes with relative ease, needing no more momentum than big-bore-engine diesels. Interestingly, the automatic-transmission D-Max didn’t seem fazed by its lower peak torque figure and matched the manuals in dune-climbing ability.
Secure in the knowledge that our Isuzu D-Max trio shouldn’t have any major problems with the Simpson Desert dunes we all relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
The Desert in bloom
We’ve crossed The Simpson several times, but we’ve never seen it as luxuriant as during this trip.
It’s normal for Australian desert sand dunes to be dotted with plant growth, but the normal pattern is a base colour of red sand, with an overlay of vegetation clumps – much like an Aboriginal ‘dot’ painting.
After two seasons of flooding rains the growth had all but blocked out the red background in many locations.
Simpson regulars will be familiar with the Eyre Creek region, not far west of Birdsville. It’s normally dry, but this year it was full of dense green vegetation on the edge of mud pools and at the base of a steep dune there was a prominent ‘detour’ sign. This side track ran some 30km north, to a rocky ford where it was possible to cross the flooded Eyre Creek, then south again, to intersect the QAA Line only a few kilometres from the detour point; such was the degree of inundation in the Red Centre.
There’s nearly always a positive side to apparent negatives in the bush and our payback for the additional 60km of track bouncing was a grassy ‘riverside’ camp site near the crossing. We frolicked in a deep billabong on the Creek and couldn’t believe we were in the middle of one of the most arid regions in Australia.
The Hay River Track
From Eyre Creek the dunes gradually diminish in size, so we had no dramas travelling to the huge clay pan near the Peoppel Corner turnoff.
Instead of turning left to the Corner and the French Line we took a right turn and put some air in our tyres, for a harder-surface, dune-valley run.
When we turned left up the Hay River valley it wasn’t immediately apparent that we were travelling up anything other than another swale, but after a few kilometres we started to see signs of water flows and obvious flood erosion.
The last two years’ rainfall had been prodigious, so water flows in the Northern Simpson were well above normal and it showed. In many places the original Hay River Track had been sluiced away, so we made our own route through the undergrowth and parted dense stands of bush lavender until we re-joined the track once more.
That was pretty much the pattern for the next two days, camping overnight in whatever clear areas we could find.
After idling alongside the now-dry Hay River for all this time it was a change to drive across and along its sandy course as we made for the huge claypan that is Lake Caroline.
Last time we were at this place it was a vast expanse of flat, red lake bed with nary a sign of vegetation on top. This time, the surface was covered with grey saltbush and resembled a huge grove of miniature olive trees. What a difference some rain makes.
From our overnight camp on the gibber plain at the edge of Lake Caroline we made for Batton Hill, which is a well-equipped camp ground set up by traditional land owner, the late Lindsay Bookie. Hot showers, fed by donkey boilers, were welcomed by everyone.
With fuel tanks running low the convoy made a stop next morning at Jervois Station, before heading along the freshly-graded Plenty Highway towards Alice Springs.
Running at 60-80km/h felt like speeding, after four days of slow driving on the Hay River Track.
Our fuel consumption was interesting, with all three D-Maxs using roughly the same amount of fuel in the demanding off-road conditions: 14 to 15L/100km. That was a modest increase on the on-highway consumption figures that worked out at 10.5L/100km for the lightest towing combination and 11.3L/100km for both the heavier towing vehicle and the slide-on-camper-equipped D-Max.
These are the best fuel figures we’ve ever had from 4WD vehicles carrying or towing ‘bush homes’.
Jol and his gang headed for real beds and home comforts in The Alice, while we took the slower route, via the Binns Track…but that’s another story.