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South Australian Outback Adventure – Trip Log 8

Part 8 – Big Red & Hot Chips

We can’t officially say we’ve crossed the Simpson Desert until we’ve climbed Big Red!

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

Waking up this morning to the hustle and bustle of other campers in the caravan park in Birdsville is a noticeable change from near silence of the Simpson Desert.

Last night we arrived around 9:00pm and the office was closed so we found ourselves a spot, rolled out the swags and after a big days driving we called it a night.

So this morning I’m keen to legitimise our stay as quickly as possible and head over to the office as soon as it opens to officially book us in – it seems like a common situation as there are two other guys in front of me doing exactly the same thing.

With roads & tracks leading to Birdsville from all the points of the compass it attracts a good mix of travellers and, with only one caravan park in town, they are all here.

There’s plenty of serious 4WD’s with their orange flags up, a lot of heavy duty offroad camper trailers and some more tame ‘sealed road only’ rigs as well. Our friends in the Unimog who we last saw at Purni Bore are also here.

We only have the one day in Birdsville and will be hitting the road tomorrow morning first thing for the long drive down the Cordillo Downs Road to Innamincka so we need to get busy.

We’re all in desperate need of a shower so that’s the first priority for the day and Sienna is keen to have pancakes for breakfast and even volunteers to make them for us.

After about 10 minutes of furious activity with a fork and mixing bowl she’s turned flour, eggs, milk and sugar into pancake batter and also vowed to add a ‘stick mixer’ to our list of ‘must have’ kit for future road trips.

Rather than setup our gas stove, we head over to the caravan parks’ small camp kitchen which has an electric gas stove and manage to score a hob next to a lady who’s doing a fine job of cooking bacon for her crew.

Sienna’s hard work pays off and we all enjoy a couple of nice pancakes each for breaky.

Sienna’s Birdsville Pancakes – Yum!

Now at this point we can’t actually claim to have crossed the Simpson Desert due to us having bypassed Big Red last night.

Big Red is the largest and most easterly dune on the QAA line and is effectively the end of the Simpson Desert crossing.

So with breakfast and showers done, we jump back in the car and head back out to Big Red to finish the job.

As we get closer on the drive out we start hearing more and more chatter on the UHF and when we arrive at Big Red there’s at 20 or so vehicles milling around the base of the massive dune either getting ready to have a go or watching others make the attempt.

Along the top of the dune is a line of vehicles that have already made it to the top and about a dozen people taking in the view.

Not wanting to rush it, we pull up where we have a good view of the whole situation, turn the engine off and take it all in.

There looks to be 6 different tracks to the top and they vary in steepness and difficulty.

A steady stream of vehicles are attempting one track or another with mixed success. As with all of the dunes across the Simpson Desert, the thick sand and roller coaster ‘mini moguls’ on the approach to the dune and at the start of the climb suck so much energy out of the car that it’s hard to maintain any speed for when you need it most.

Some make it and some don’t

A few vehicles are making it to the top and it seems that high power and low weight is the secret to success so you can really ‘gun it’ near the top to pull yourself up and over the edge.

The girls and I discuss the merits of the various tracks and it’s time to have a go.

I want to film the attempt from down below as well as from the car itself – I’d like a shot from the top down as well but can’t pursuade any of the girls to climb to the top with camera in hand to get the shot.

So the best I can come up with is to leave one of our cameras on a tripod down below and just hope that no-one makes off with it.

So with tripod camera, windscreen Gopro and handheld camera from the passenger seat running I drive back away from the dune to get a long run up then hit the go pedal.

In an ideal world all 4 tyres would start spinning at this stage and we’d snake wildly up the side of the monster dune and even catch a bit of air as we fly over the crest with spectators scattering . . .

Yeah . . . no!

The reality is actually something a little different as the 26 year old turbo diesel does its best to get the 3 tonne four wheel drive moving, but it’s fighting an uphill battle all the way as the mini moguls come in to play, sucking the momentum out of the car and slowing us down before we really get going.

We make it almost half way up the dune before the car grinds to a halt and shudders wildly as I jam the clutch in to stop it stalling.

I don’t think the car has ever felt heavier to me than it does right now!

Pedal to the floor for our first attempt – not sure why those people at the top aren’t diving out of the way?!

Putting it in reverse we slink back down the dune tail between out legs and pull up next to the camera to assess the situation.

At this point Sara is adamant we just need to hit it faster and while I don’t disagree that it would help, I’m slightly nervous that having come so far on this trip already I really don’t want to destroy the undercarriage of the car or snap an axle/gearbox/diff etc. at the eleventh hour.

But nonetheless we agree to have one more go and we study the approach again to try and see the smoothest line up the side of the dune.

Getting an even longer run up than the first attempt, we are pedal to the floor as we hit the dune again and for a while there it seems like we’re on a winner . . .

Bouncing around wildly with tyres spinning and engine revving way beyond it’s (and my) comfort zone the old 80 puts in a valiant effort but gravity is relentless.

Alas . . . despite the extra momentum at the start, we are barely half way up again and it’s all over.

Into reverse and it’s a slow crawl backwards down the dune again.

Now at this point Sara is desperate to know why some (not all) other cars can do it and we can’t and here’s my theory:

  • Our car is heavy – 4 people, 100+ litres of diesel and at least 100 litres of water, all our gear except our swags and all the bolt on stuff like bullbar, roofrack, winch, rear drawers etc.
  • It’s old – Despite being a turbo, it’s old technology and newer engines have heaps more power and electronic chips to make it all happen when it matters most
  • It’s a manual – This is one of the times when an auto gearbox would be a definite advantage
  • An ounce of caution – I really don’t want the rest of this trip & film to be about how we broke something major trying to get up Big Red and spent the next few days and thousands of dollars trying to get us and the car home – so I’m just not prepared to push it beyond its limit

So taking all that into account, we decide to head over to track number 6 on the far right side and give that a go.

It’s still a challenge to get up but it is definitely the easiest of the tracks and with plenty of right foot we claw our way up the side, narrowly avoid hitting another car on it’s way down, and make it to the top.

Woohoo . . . It’s now official, we’ve crossed the Simpson Desert, and we find a good spot on top to park the car, get out and take in the view and of course snap a few photos for the album.

After about half an hour of revelling in the view from the top of Big Red and watching other cars have mixed amounts of success trying to get up, it’s time to hit the road back to Birdsville.

Close encounters on the way up Big Red
Trying to get everyone looking at the camera together – always a challenge!

I have a few repairs to do on the car – nothing major, a loose side bar on the front bull bar, a loose flare on the back right wheel arch and resorting of the gear in the back.

We also want stop in at the Birdsville Bakery for a pie and hot chips.

In fact we’ve been dreaming about it for days.

We spent a couple of days in Birdsville a few years ago on our way up to Lawn Hill and the pie and chips were so good we’ve been joking on this trip that ‘who else crosses the Simpson Desert for a pie and chips?!’.

Jumping back in the car we head back down the same track we came up and keep going all the way into Birdsville and pull up at the bakery about 30 minutes later.

But we’re too late . . .

To our surprise and disappointment, the bakery closed 10 minutes ago at 2:00pm!!

It never actually occurred to me that it would close at all during the day on a Sunday – I don’t remember it closing last time we were here so maybe it’s a new thing.

Nonetheless our dreams of pies and chips are in tatters for now but the girl at the door tells us they are open again in the morning from 6:30am so we plan to come back for breaky.

But we still need some lunch now.

Besides the bakery and the hotel, there really isn’t much else when it comes to food in Birdsville so we head over to the servo where we need to get fuel anyway, in the hope they’ll have something hot in the pie warmer . . . but no joy!!

So we settle for an ice cream from their freezer instead and grab an arm full of other supplies to top up our food tubs enough to get us home.

Back at camp I get stuck into getting the back of the car reorganised, giving it a general tidy up and fixing the bits and pieces that have broken or come loose from the rigours of the Simpson Crossing.

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

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Steve Baile
Steve Baile
I’m the founder of Expedition Australia, a writer, filmmaker & adventure travel junkie. Passionate about my family, health and fitness, hiking, 4WD touring, adventure motorbikes, camping and exploring as much of the planet as I can.


  1. Hi there Steve
    I’ve been following your journey and am extremely jealous; though I have been everywhere you have been, but a long time ago! Too busy these days to hit the road again at least till I hit 70….so another 6 years of peddling the business.

    My vehicles for my trips have always been Landrover or RangeRover and we have never been stuck in the never never during 40 years of 4wding.

    I am however mystified as to why so many get pleasure out of ripping up Big Red. I know! Because it’s there.

    But really, it should be left alone and allowed to return to it’s original state of immense untouched beauty.

    Did you know that its very easy to drive over Big Red without all the grunt, wheel spinning, high speed run ups, and engine damaging revving.

    Just deflate your tyres and select low range 3rd or 4 gear depending on your vehicle, and just chug along – a Rangie or a 110 Landie will pull itself up and over with complete ease – and im sure that you could as well.

    Enjoy the Outback mate!

  2. Hi Steve……..watched the latest DVD and noted you all were not wearing your seatbelts crossing the Simpson…..I would have thought it would have been safer to do so seeing you dont know whats coming up over the other side of the dunes

    I would have liked to seen more places you visited in the Flinders Ranges…and Oodnadatta Track…perhaps it could be covered in future DVDs……….still an excellent DVD…. Thanks

    • Hi Dave, we do wear seatbelts as a rule but driving at barely 20 kmph across the Simpson and constantly getting out to setup a shot for the film etc, I forgot to put it back on a couple of times – not recommending anyone doesn’t wear a seatbelt!

      Agree that there is more to be covered in the Flinders and Oodnadatta Track – on a 20 day trip it’s hard to get in depth everywhere and our main focus was the Simpson Desert. We’ll cover the Flinders and Oodnadatta Track in more detail in future films.

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