DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
In 1929 Dr Cecil (CT) Madigan undertook a series of aerial reconnaissances of central Australia and in 1939 followed this up with a scientific expedition into the Simpson Desert. It’s now a popular, but extremely demanding, desert expedition.
CT Madigan’s expedition crossed the desert in 25 days with a party of nine, pioneering the use of mobile radio communication and making extensive zoological and botanical collections, which included 14 new species of spiders.
The geology of the desert was also recorded. This was the first scientific examination of the Simpson Desert and only the second complete crossing by a European. Madigan’s expedition was financed by AA Simpson of Adelaide. His book of the journey is titled ‘Crossing the Dead Heart’.
We’re indebted to the State Library South Australia for use of its archival film of the expedition and viewers are advised that this film contains footage that shows Aboriginal people who have passed away.
For a more modern take on the Madigan Line crossing in 4WDs, Patrick Walsh sent us this report and video on a recent trip across the famous Madigan Line, with an excursion to Geosurveys Hill.
Trip participants: Patrick and Aidan Walsh – Land Rover Defender 110; Jen Donaldson and Ron Douglas – LandCruiser 100 Series; Lloyd and Shanna Hetrick – Range Rover Sport TDV6 and Peter McNeil – Defender 130
As many of the iconic 4WD tracks and destinations around Australia become more ‘opened-up’ and easily accessible, there are still some that retain that real sense of adventure that many of us crave; pitting man and machine against the Outback, leaving the pressures of modern life well and truly out of mobile range.
If you’re looking for a real off-road challenge, true solitude, desert camps, scenery straight out of your wildest dreams and some of the most awe-inspiring night skies you’re ever likely to see then step this way: in the footsteps of one CT Madigan.
Named after explorer Dr CT Madigan, who made the trek on camels in 1939, the Madigan Line is regarded (quite rightly as we would discover) as the most challenging and interesting way of crossing the Simpson Desert.
Far away from holiday-period crowds on the desert super-highway that is the French Line and QAA Line these days, the Madigan Line is reminiscent of what those busy routes were like 20 or 30 years ago. Get out and do it while it’s still unspoilt is our tip. Just make sure you’re well prepared for any eventuality!
Usually tackled from West to East so as to crest the dunes from the ‘easier’ side, our group ‘warmed up’ by heading across the Central Simpson from Birdsville to Mount Dare via the QAA and French Lines.
We headed out from Mt Dare along the Binns Track towards Old Andado. The track varied greatly between rough corrugated sections, smooth bits, big washouts and even bigger bull-dust holes that left the following cars bathed in a cloud of beige talcum powder. It was good to be leading on that particular leg!
We stopped for a look around the Old Andado homestead and surrounding bush camp before pushing on towards the Mac Clarke Conservation reserve that protects rare, if unremarkable-looking, Acacia Peuce trees.
It was quite tricky to find the start of the Madigan Line, because a fence now runs where you’d imagine it begins, given the Hema mapping and very useful North Simpson Desert Guide Book information. But, after a little mucking around and studying GPS points on various pieces of electronic gadgetry, we picked up some wheel tracks that headed out towards East Bore and just past that we found a great flat area between the trees that became our first night camp on the Madigan Line.
It was a thrill to be finally ‘on-line’ in the truest, non-computer-jargon sense! We were set up at camp (25°08.255’S, 135°36.674’E) by 6pm and 170 plus kilometres from Mt Dare.
We broke camp by 9am and veered north-east towards Madigan’s Camp 1, taking an hour or so to reach it. Camp 1 is not as clearly marked as the others, having just a metal post with an old bit of strapping tied to it, but we were bang on the GPS mark that David Owen supplied to Hema. (We were carrying Hema’s Simpson Desert Map in paper form and iPad version, plus the Mud Map iPad app for back up and a Hema Navigator.) We weren’t going to get lost!
It was another hour to the two rocky outcrops known as The Twins, via Camp 2. After lunch we had a brilliant drive through some sections of eucalypt forest and Coolabah gums across the Hale River floodplain. This was one of the most memorable times of the whole trip, cresting dune after dune, then diving back into forest country, then back to the dunes.
The wheel marks we’d been following took us due east for a good hour or so, when the map would have had us veering south, but eventually they headed south, linking with the Hema map track for a period before again taking a more cross-country route. We went north between the dunes and eventually swung east, heading directly for the Colson Track: in the right direction, but on totally different tracks from our mapping.
We got the impression that on this trek the ‘track’ is laid out by the first groups through each year and by our reckoning and research there had been 12 to 15 groups through before us in 2014, so the wheel marks were very well defined. We reached night’s camp (GPS 24°51.408’S, 135°57.856’E) at 4.15pm, now 270km from our start point.
Later start today, broke camp at 10am after putting 30 litres of diesel into the main tank (to get some weight off the roof as quickly as possible) and it was a great drive, again pretty much cross country and over some quite soft dune tops, reaching the Colson Track just after 11am and now 280km from our start.
In many places there were no wheel marks to follow and it was another memorable stretch of the trip. We cruised along the Colson up to Madigan Camp 5 (bypassing the off-limits Camps 3 and 4 on Aboriginal Land) and took lunch there.
We picked up some radio chat on channel 10 (the dedicated Simpson Desert UHF channel) and it became clear was group of female travellers. It was obvious that they were somewhat lost, so we made radio contact and a rendezvous with them two kilometres back down the Colson. They turned out to be ‘local girls’ from Alice Springs out on a weekend jaunt, so we checked that they had ample fuel and water before setting them on their way.
After seeing them off we picked up the Madigan Line once more and it was an uneventful run on a section of track that was like driving on carpet all the way to Madigan Camp 6, which is in a wide-open plain and very easy to spot. We found an excellent camp nearby and were set-up, beer in hand by 3pm – 345km from Mt Dare and at GPS 24*38’29.0″S 136*08’44.0″E
Back on the track at 9.40am, our plan was to head to Camps 7 and 8 and out to Geosurveys Hill. Shortly after Camp 8 we found the track south towards Geosurveys Hill. It was slow going, all 45km of it, over spinifex moguls, on a very faintly defined track and it took five hours to get there. However, this did include a 45-minute stopover mid afternoon, to let our shock absorbers cool down.
This was a great opportunity to drag out the Presso coffee maker and turn out some pretty reasonable espresso coffee. In fact, I can’t remember a coffee ever tasting so great in the bush! So by 6pm we were set up in a rough camp at Geosurveys, in time for a spectacular sunset. GPS 25°03.130’S, 136°48.130’E
We got away from Geosurveys Hill at 9.15am on what was to prove the most dramatic part of our whole trip. Rather than heading back to Camp 8 on the track we’d come in on we decided to try to find a track direct to Camp 9. (We’d previously spoken to a group who said thay had done so only a few months before.)
Leaving Geosurveys we found wheel marks heading in the right direction, seemingly, almost directly out of camp. We decided that this ‘had to be’ the track. After checking GPS bearings and direction everything seemed to be right, so off we went. The dunes we encountered early in this track, although relatively small, were quite challenging. The track was heading due east when we really needed to be heading north but we were sure that it would swing around in the right direction eventually. There were strong indications that we were on the right path, with lots of fresh wheel marks and trampled spinifex mounds. But, ominously, this became less and less the case, and the track was showing no sign of veering north.
It was very slow going and we stopped for lunch at 3.15pm, having only travelled 16 kilometres. You do the maths! Continuing on, we eventually saw that the track we were on was not headed in the right direction anytime soon and a totally cross-country route back to the Madigan Line was needed. So at 24°59.683’S, 136°59.611’E we turned off and into the never-never.
To say the going was slow would be the understatement of the century. Tedious progress over sand moguls, spinifex mounds and timber-ridden ‘stake zones’ was the order of the day. Speed was down below 5km/h.
It was clear that we weren’t going to reach the Madigan Line that night, so our new go-to point was some clay plans that were indicated on the Hema mapping. We staked a tyre on the Defender 110 and had to change that wheel, but eventually made our Clay Pan Camp (GPS 24°52.882’S, 136°56.438’E) at 5.50pm, for a total of 41.6km in nine hours.
We were only half way back to the Madigan Line, but that claypan was perhaps the most memorable camp of the whole trip. Like a lunar landscape, under a brilliant desert sky, we were both exhausted and elated to be out of the ‘cross country’ stuff, even if we knew it was only temporary.
Imagine this: the convoy is at walking pace, with two spotters out front walking ahead, removing possible stakes, clearing the path of debris, pointing the drivers in the right direction. This was our modus operandi for much of the drive this day; or at least for half of it, as we ground our way forward, picking lines between the scrub, finding exit points over massive dunes, edging closer and closer to the salvation that re-joining the Madigan Line now presented.
Having set off from our claypan camp at 8.30 in the morning, we finally intersected the line at 1.30 in the afternoon, with the odometer reading 499km since our start and having done in excess of 70 kilometres cross country in some of the harshest terrain Australia can throw up. En route we’d staked a tyre on the Land Cruiser 100, but whatever, we were there! It’s not a hint of exaggeration to say that I fell to the ground and kissed the track on re-finding it!
Not wanting to miss visiting a Madigan Line Camp we headed back to Camp 9 for a quick photo shoot, arriving there at around 3.15pm; just in time to meet a convoy of three vehicles, also headed east along the line. They were the only other group we’d see on the Madigan Line.
It was different heading due west, because the driving was more challenging in that direction and some of us had to take several attempts to crest the dunes. Given our time again, we’d opt to do the whole trip in that direction. Oh well, we’ll just have to go back next year!
The next day we decided that we’d have a two-night camp somewhere and have a ‘layover day’. We did need it by that point. Not that we lay idle, mind you, with several tyres worked on that day, across the four vehicles. We learned a hell of a lot from Jenny that day about tyre repair!
Madigan’s Claypan was the perfect spot for such a stopover, with plenty of space – even if we didn’t have it all to ourselves. But that’s the thing about the Madigan line – it’s no exaggeration to say that the French Line is ‘Bourke Street’ by comparison. When the work was done we enjoyed a leisurely dinner: ‘dumplings in the desert’.
After a relaxed pack-up we transferred the 65-litre auxiliary diesel tank’s contents into the main one, with the odometer reading 570km and left Madigan’s Claypan at 9.30am.
After the slog of the previous few days travelling was a far more ‘cruisy’ affair, with no-one needing a second run at anything, no-one breaking anything and no punctures!
Camps 12, 13, and 14 passed in relatively quick succession before we reached Camp 15 on the Hay River Track. The Hay River southwards felt like a motorway in comparison, as we reached speeds we hadn’t seen for quite a while. Pushing on to Camp 16 we encountered the trio of cars we’d met a few days earlier on the Madigan, as well seveal others doing the Hay River trek.
Meeting other vehicles and people so suddenly threatened our solitude somewhat, but it wasn’t long before we had a private camp on a big open clay-pan between Camps 16 and 17, with a slightly more challenging section of track just before camp. We were 640km from Mount Dare and camped at 24°44.421’S, 137°47.747’E
Now we were used to a gentler pace we decided that we’d head only as far as Camp 17, reaching there by lunchtime and settling in for another terrific lay-over afternoon, 654km from Mount Dare.
We made some ‘chocolate assortment damper’, had a magnificent dessert of muscat-flambéed oranges on wafter-thin crepes and enjoyed our last fire on the route. (Fires are not permitted in the Queensland section of the National Park or on Adria Downs station). The campsite at Camp 17 was excellent, making for a great afternoon and evening, although we were rewarded with a few slightly sore heads the next morning…
We were on the track by 9.30am and noted that the scenery changed quite dramatically, with more greenery, more trees and lots of wide-open swales between the dunes. We had morning tea at Camp 18, and made Camp 19 for lunch, some 715km since our last opportunity to buy fuel at Mt Dare. It had paid off, being fuel-prepared.
After Camp 19 we were on David Brooks’ Adria Downs station. David had very graciously granted us permission to travel through, on the understanding that we would do nothing to jeopardize the organic status of the station and we took this very seriously, leaving nothing there apart from footprints and tyre marks.
Camp 20 is at the all but dry Kidaree Waterhole, where some cattle looked happier than others. Such is the harsh reality of the true outback.
Camp 21 was tricky to find, but luckily we’d been tipped off about the need to double-back after Camp 20 and cross to the other side of the billabong on faint wheel tracks, to pick up the route south. Even so, it wasn’t easy to find, but we eventually we made our way along some excellent station tracks to Camp 21 by mid-afternoon, and shortly after, over one quite huge dune, we stopped at the ruins at Annandale – another stark reminder of the harsh times in this part of the world in days gone by. We were 780km from Mount Dare.
Taking a sobering look around Annandale we could only imagine how different the place must have been in the good times of 1939, when Cecil Madigan and his party went through.
Later, after visiting Camp 22 – our final ‘Camp’ visit, as 23 and 24 are near Adria Downs homestead and are therefore off limits – we made camp near an Eyre Creek floodway and had a celebratory bottle of champagne on the overlooking dune at sunset.
After a big 140-kilometre day this, plus a warming meal of Veal Stroganoff, was a delightful way to cap off the Camp visits. Madigan would have done it a lot harder than us in our ‘bells and whistles’ Land Rovers and Toyota.
We broke camp at 9.45am and still had plenty of fuel in the Defender, although we’d come 800km from Mount Dare. As we made our way back to the QAA Line the biggest issue was ensuring we were on the right track, as there were tracks going off in all directions. Intersecting the QAA line at Eyre Creek at around 11.30am was a bit of a culture shock.
After 10 days of radio silence – apart from our own – and not encountering bulk vehicles, the QAA Line in school holiday period was full-on, with literally dozens of 4WDs going in both directions. We needed our wits about us, that’s for sure.
As we headed towards Big Red I was leading the group and, with the lazy ol’ Defender a whole lot lighter that when we’d set out a few weeks before, I thought I’d have a run at it, first time, on the ‘harder’ of the two main tracks leading up and over. To my amazement and utter delight, we cruised up and over on the first attempt. Yay! It was a fitting final marker for our Madigan trip…
All that was left – OK, after playing on Big Red for a while – was to roll into Birdsville for some brews. And my, how we enjoyed them: just as CT Madigan did at his ‘Camp 25’ – the Birdsville Hotel.
Fuel consumption for the 920 kilometres between Mount Dare and Birdsville via The Madigan Line and Geosurveys Hill:
Our Defender 110: 160 litres
Defender 130: 162 litres
Range Rover Sport TDV6: 178 litres
Landcruiser 100 Series: 210 litres
Check out Patrick’s video: