Simpson Desert Information
The Simpson Desert means different things to people all over Australia.
A variety of challenging 4WD touring adventures
Unspoilt desert wilderness
Natural history and ecology
Wide open spaces and crystal blue skies.
Westprint Maps have range of maps and books to help people enjoy a trip through this region of Central Australia, regardless of any specific special interest. The most popular of these are:
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General Simpson Desert Information
The Simpson Desert straddles three states (South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory) and covers about 150,000 square kilometres. It was named by the explorer and scientist C T Madigan after A A Simpson, an Adelaide industrialist. The Desert is dominated by a remarkable system of parallel sand ridges, with only occasional Y-shaped convergences interrupting an otherwise striking uniformity. Although the crests of the ridges are often bare, the lower slopes and bases are usually well stabilized by dense plant growth. Spinifex (Triodia basedowii) and sandhill cane grass (Zygochloa paradoxa) are prominent species. Since the heavy rains of the early to mid 1970s, many tall shrubs — particularly sandhill wattle (Acacia ligulata) — have become established on the sand ridges of the western portion of the Desert.
Although the difficult terrain and absence of permanent surface water repelled early European explorers, several did make incursions into the fringes of the desert. Sturt on his 1844-45 inland expedition travelled along Eyre Creek on the eastern edge. It is also possible that Leichhardt may have died somewhere in the Simpson Desert during his 1848 exploration.
The Simpson Desert (and many of South Australia's remote desert parks are) closed between December 1 and March 15. Crossing the Simpson Desert takes a minimum of 4 days and requires low range (at times) and high ground clearance from your vehicle. The best time of the year is May to October, to avoid the soaring temperatures of a desert summer.
Camping permits are required for Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) National Park, while a Desert Parks Pass is required for entry and camping in the Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve, as well as for camping at Purni Bore in Witjira National Park. The Desert Parks Pass is available from https://www.parks.sa.gov.au/booking and nightly camping permits are available from Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta, Mt Dare Hotel and the Ranger Station at Dalhousie Springs.
Also check https://www.covid-19.sa.gov.au/restrictions-and-responsibilities/travel-restrictions for any current Covid-19 restrictions and requirements.
While in the desert, self-sufficiency is essential. Carry at least five litres of water per person per day, in the cooler months and seven - ten litres if the weather is beginning to warm up. Also it is a good idea to carry emergency food and water for another 7 days in the event of break downs. An estimation of your fuel consumption is a good idea too, taking into account that soft sand driving can increase fuel use by around 50% in diesel vehicles and can almost double it in petrol vehicles.
Prior desert or sand driving driving experience is recommended and consider carry traction aids. (The Simpson Desert as a first sand driving trip will be very daunting for most people) It's important to remember that sand flags now are a requirement to drive in the Simpson Desert. Sand flags must be 300x290mm in size, made of fluorescent materials, and the flag must be 3.5m off the ground. For communications, scanning UHF CB channel 10 for approaching vehicles is another precautionary rule to abide by for safety going over dunes. (Your safety as well as that of oncoming vehicles.)
It’s important to remember that tracks are impassable when wet also, and there are fire restrictions in various regions and various times of the year.
Driving in the Simpson Desert
The largest parallel sand dune desert in the world, the Simpson puts 1136 dunes in your path. The majority of traffic travels from West to East, ie. Oodnadatta to Birdsville is the most common trip. Driving east to west is more challenging, as the eastern dune faces are generally steeper due to the wind direction. The biggest dunes are on the eastern side of the desert. Big Red on the very eastern side of the Simpson Desert is the largest of them all, with dunes diminishing in size as a trend to the west. The most important requirement in sand dunes is to drop your tyre pressure and maintain low speed. This not only makes your own journey easier, but does so for those who come after you as well. (Your traction is improved with lower pressures, reducing wheel spin so tracks do not become chopped up).
The Simpson Desert will present travellers with a wide variety of tracks to explore different paths across the arid centre of Australia.
French Line / QAA Line - Is the shortest route across the Simpson Desert and probably the most popular with tourists. Track conditions vary seasonally with the prevailing weather and amount of traffic on the track. The western end of the French Line generally has smallish dunes that should present few problems for most modern 4WD vehicles, but can become very corrugated in places. The QAA Line traversing the Queensland section of the Simpson Desert has larger sand dunes and these progessively get taller the closer to Big Red at the very eastern edge of the Simpson Desert.
WAA Line - Generally similar track conditions to the French Line but usually has less traffic as it is approximately 40 - 50 Kms further than the French Line, depending on the exact route taken. The WAA Line also has less corrugations with which to contend. The dunes are also lower, but can be more technical as some have double dune crests. The WAA leaves the Rig Road where the Colson Track strikes north and heads directly east, crossing the Erabena Track before meeting the Knolls Track. Most travellers then head north to meet the French Line
The Rig Road - Another major route, but possibly the least travelled, is the Rig Road. This is the longest and most southern route across the desert. The Rig Road is possibly the easiest trip but beware of places the clay on top of the dunes may have eroded. The Rig Road was originally built to allow trucks to access the oil exploration areas, and some maintenance was done around 2015 - 2016 but this is not a regularly maintained track. The Rig Road retains a strong feeling of remoteness, where you can travel for 2 - 3 days and not see another vehicle. This remoteness can be missing from the French Line in the peak season.
Madigan Line - The majority of this route is in the Northern Territory and as such does not require a Desert Parks Pass. It does require a transit permit from the Central Lands Council in Alice Springs. The Madigan Line is the most remote route across the Simpson Desert and follows Cecil Madigan's route from his 1939 expedition. Most travellers again opt to drive west to east to make driving over windswept dunes easier. This was also the direction Madigan took with his camels for the same reason.
The Acacia Peuce, also known as the ‘waddi tree’, is thought to be a remnant of the ice age. Its foliage is prickly, particularly when small, and the wood is very hard. The adult tree can grow to heights of 13 to 17 metres. Only three stands of these trees are known in Australia. The largest is near Boulia and covers about 100 square kilometres, while the smallest is on Andado Station where about 1,000 trees are scattered over about 10 square kilometres. Growth of young trees is slow and may be only 30 centimetres a year. Growth appears to take place in time of good rainfall, and slows during drought. It is not unreasonable to estimate that mature trees may be about 500 years old. Acacia Peuce was used for fence posts and building timber but the timber was so hard that axes and saws quickly became blunt and other trees such as desert oak, coolibah and mulga were preferred. The rarity of Acacia Peuce has now been recognised and efforts made to protect them. Some regeneration occurred after exceptionally heavy rains in 1974 and again in 1988. Although germination needs heavy and prolonged rain, seedlings also need protection from trampling by cattle and camels.