Crossing the approximately 550km of steep north–south dunes through the Simpson Desert between Dalhousie in South Australia and Birdsville in Queensland is the ultimate challenge for any off-roader. In late September, 4WD groups are joined by bikes attempting to complete the punishing Simpson Desert Cycling Classic (desertchallenge.org). In winter, a steady stream of vehicles moves from west to east (the easier direction since the dunes’ eastern slopes are steeper and harder to climb), but there’s no help along the way, so don’t underestimate the difficulties; extensive 4WD experience is required. Convoys need to include at least one skilled mechanic and, apart from the usual spares, a long-handled shovel and a strong tow-rope. You’ll also need more than adequate food and water (six litres a day per person), and of course fuel – around a hundred litres of diesel, or two hundred litres of petrol, if you take the shortest route.
The enjoyment is mostly in the driving, though there’s more than sand to look at: trees and shrubs grow in stabilized areas and at dusk you’ll find dune crests patrolled by reptiles, birds, small mammals and insects. Photographers can take advantage of clear skies at night to make timed exposures of the stars circling the heavens. At the uncapped spout of Purni Bore, 70km from Dalhousie, birdlife and reeds fringe a 27°C pool; camping facilities here include a shower and toilet. A post battling to stay above shifting sand at Poeppel Corner (269km) marks the junction of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. After the corner the dunes become higher but further apart, separated by claypans covered in mulga and grassland. Big Red, the last dune, is also the tallest; once over this it’s a clear 41km run to Birdsville.
The Simpson Desert Regional Reserve, linking the Witjira National Park to the Simpson Desert Conservation Park, is closed in summer (Dec–March). As with other areas, a Desert Parks Pass is required (environment.sa.gov.au/parks).