Crossing the Simpson Desert by fat bike
In the dusty red heart of Australia, where Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Territory meet, lies the Simpson Desert. Covering roughly 2.5% of the Australian mainland (176,000 square km), the Simpson Desert is Australia’s fourth-largest desert and a region as remote as it is vast.
There are perhaps half a dozen established tracks across the Simpson, the most remote of which is the Madigan Line. Known in 4WDing circles as the most challenging and interesting way of crossing the desert, the Madigan Line is named after Cecil Madigan, the man who, in 1939, led the first major expedition across the desert.
Eighty years on from that journey, VeloClub member Stephen Amos and four other cyclists set out to retrace Madigan’s tracks, on fatbikes. Over 10 days in July 2019, Stephen and his crew covered more than 600 km on the Madigan Line, cresting more than 500 sand dunes along the way. The following is Stephen’s account of a trip that was more than six years in the making.
You mightn’t have heard of Cecil Madigan but he was one of Australia’s great explorers. He studied under fellow explorer Sir Douglas Mawson at the University of South Australia and named the Simpson Desert after one of his benefactors, Alfred Simpson. Fun fact – that’s the washing machine man.
In 1929 Madigan arranged an aerial survey of the Simpson Desert, and in June 1939 led an expedition of nine men and 19 camels from North Bore (200km south of Alice Springs) to Birdsville in the east. He took 24 days to do it, and his camps form some of the only milestones on the track today. Madigan chose to travel west to east because the sand dunes are aligned roughly north-south, and are much steeper on the eastern side.
You can read about Madigan’s crossing in his book, “Crossing the Dead Heart” (follow the link to read it online for free).
I was fortunate enough to drive part of the Madigan Line in 2013, and I couldn’t help but view it through the lens of a bike rider. I thought “This looks very rideable … and what a way that would be to really experience the desert.” And so the seed was planted.
I drove the line again in 2016 with the purpose of doing a reconnaissance run of the whole line. I assessed the nature of the track to see exactly what sort of riding conditions I thought we would face. This was invaluable in planning intended progress, and working out what types of averages we would need to get the ride done.
In October 2018 I took my newly acquired fatbike and my first fellow participant — my colleague James — to the eastern edge of the desert and rode some dunes and some of the station track in sweltering 40ºC heat. We settled on an average of 12.5 kph for the dunes and 20 kph for station track, and proved that we could ride up and down dunes on a pushbike, which was nice to know because I was getting pretty serious about the whole idea by then.
During this time I kept picking up participants. I’d launch into some excited blithering about the whole scheme and people would either say “That sounds amazing – I’m in!” or “I think I’m washing my hair in July”. Basically, if your eyes were on stalks talking about it, you were eligible.
With this well-thought-out process, the first “sucker” was James who was anointed deputy. He also recruited his colleague Colin in the work bike cage who became the oldest participant on the ride, turning 60 the day we were scheduled to arrive in Birdsville. A chance encounter with friend Rachel at the local MTB trailhead resulted in our first and only female team member.
The last participant was Ben who, over a chicken parma at a bike event, loved the idea so much that he basically said on the spot that he was in. He had intended to walk the desert anyway so this seemed like a good idea.
The Madigan Line is one of the most remote “tracks” in the world. For all but the western and eastern edges you are out of range of air support. One of my stated goals for this trip was that if we appeared on the ABC it was to be for the right reasons – not a “hapless bike rider goes into the Simpson Desert and gets stuck, requiring army rescue”.
I considered doing the ride “unsupported” but it was clear to me that doing so would require stashing supplies and water throughout the desert as there is literally nothing out there. Unlike tracks across the Simpson Desert in the south, there is very little vehicle traffic on the Madigan Line — only 100 cars a year.
With that in mind I recruited enough family and friends of our participants to drive six cars across the desert with us. Fitting enough water (220 litres in our car), fuel (100 litres), spares, camping gear and food for 10+2 days, not to mention carrying the bikes and spares, was one of the more challenging aspects of the preparations.
The Madigan Line is roughly divided into three sections. The first takes you north east from North Bore. There aren’t many sandhills in this section – it’s more like station track. It was heavily corrugated – except for the bits that were several inches deep with bulldust. We didn’t make the kind of progress I had hoped for in this section, and the cars really struggled with the bulldust. So much so that us riders made the camping spot nearly an hour before our support vehicles did.
The next section is the true west-to-east dune crossings. This was the fun bit. Nearly all dunes were “very rideable” except for the “munters” and the “grunters” which sometimes required a few metres of walking. Still, the descents made up for it, and again we found that if we thought they were hard, the people in the cars really struggled.
Set your tyre pressure to 4 psi and fatbikes really do become the ships of the desert.
The last section of the Madigan Line heads roughly south east to Birdsville with a mix of station track and sand dunes which are bigger in the east of the desert. Because of the direction, you cover the dunes at more like 45º so there are long interdunal corridors and long gentle climbs to the inevitable crest. This section also has the stretch of road from Big Red (a large sanddune that’s long been a tourist attraction) to the Birdsville Hotel, which is just long enough to dream of what meal you’ll be having when you arrive.
In 10 days we covered a total of 620 km and crossed 564 sand dunes. Yes, we counted them. On the flatter days we were typically doing 80 km and on the dune days high 50s. Generally we were on the track by 10 am and pitching our tents by 4 pm.
If I had to pick the worst parts of our adventure, the main one would have been the weather. The whole trip was in doubt in the lead-up due to flooding, and once in the desert the temperatures were 5-12º hotter than the mean temperatures for that time of year. As a result, bush flies made a very solid appearance — even though we were riding at the coldest time of year — which made life more difficult than it should have been. Plus, even though we had support, making and breaking camp, maintaining bikes, and doing all the jobs that needed doing was pretty hard work around big days of riding.
What would be the highlight? Now that’s a bit tougher. I think organising this whole thing from the start, and then seeing it through was just tremendously satisfying. That it went pretty well to plan was a delight. As the organiser, seeing so many people take a spectacularly big leap outside their comfort zones was really amazing and I am so tremendously grateful for the whole crew of riders, and particularly for our helpers.
For me, being able to re-enact Madigan’s epic crossing on a fat bike, 80 years on, is, I hope, a fitting tribute to a great Australian explorer.